Elizabeth Drescher, PhD


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3 Things You Might Not Know about Nones

photo-1427348693976-99e4aca06bb9.jpegNones are a name for people who answer “none” when asked with what religious group they most identify or to which they belong. Nones are a growing segment of the US religious landscape but there are some misconceptions about how they practice and what might count as “spirituality” or “religion.” Here are three challenges to typical misconceptions about Nones:

1. They’re not Unbelievers – at least not most of them.

The most recent Pew study of the US religious landscape shows a near doubling in the percentage of Americans who identify as Atheists. That’s a big jump, but it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s from a scant 1.6% in 2007 to a slight 3.1% in 2014. Nearly 80% of Nones were raised in a home with at least nominal religious identification and affiliation, and a majority—more than 65%—say that religion remains important to them. Yes, Nones are less likely to profess a belief in God, but more than 70% of the participants on Pew’s 2012 “Nones on the Rise” survey did report some level of belief in God or a Universal Spirit.

But my research and conversations with Nones showed that questions about religious identification and disidentification tied to traditional research categories of believing and belonging miss what are perhaps more important markers across the religious landscape in the United States. Many Nones who talked with me—those who believed in a supernatural being or power as well as those who did not—were often frustrated with what they saw as a fixation on religious belief as an essential component of religiosity or spirituality. Many resisted religious labeling and, with it, the idea that, once set, religious beliefs, identities, and affiliations remain fixed over the course of a lifetime. Indeed, attention to the evolution of spiritual and religious identity, practice, and belief throughout life was a defining feature of Nones.

Dorit Brauer, a Spiritual None from Pittsburgh, put it this way: “I would say I am ‘spiritual,’” she said, “but I am interested in religion, too. I don’t worry so much about the labels. You know, a long time ago, I couldn’t go into a church and feel comfortable. But that has changed for me over time. Now I can go to a Catholic mass with my mother and it’s a very spiritual experience—and a religious experience, I guess. But that is not the core of my spirituality, of course.”

2. Many are looking for spiritual community – just not necessarily a religious community.

It’s by now a commonplace to call out the religiously unaffiliated for individualistic, private, and, as they are very often characterized, narcissistic spiritualities. The idea of spiritual self-absorption and isolationism among Nones was reinforced by the Pew “Nones on the Rise” study. Researchers asked “Are you looking for a religion that would be right for you?” A commanding majority—88%—said, “not so much.”

This was true of many of the Nones who shared their spiritual stories with me. Most were not looking for a community to which they would belong for the rest of their lives. But many were also involved in multiple forms of gathering with different degrees of formality and regularity, some continuing for years, some popping up for a time, then fading away. Nones experienced yoga classes, monthly gatherings of musician friends and their families, gatherings of neighbors for weekly dinners, outings with coworkers to explore the culture of their city, community gardens, and online networks as richly spiritual. What tended to distinguish Nones in this regard was a cosmopolitan outlook rather than a communitarian one—the idea that regular and periodic encounters with others known well, only casually, or not really at all could be occasions of spiritual connection and significance.

This spiritual cosmopolitanism hardly ruled out all engagement with traditional religious communities. “I guess I still have a lot of religion in me, you could say. It just comes out differently now,” said Dan Li, a None from Waimea, Hawaii, who takes as a spiritual practice regularly visiting a diversity of religious sites. “I feel comfortable in a church for the most part, or in a Buddhist temple, or whatever, even if I don’t exactly believe what they believe. All religions have something good in them,” he acknowledged, “even the most small-minded of them. I like that. I like to be open to all of it.”

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Such viewpoints mark Nones as very different from the Baby Boomer “generation of seekers” profiled by Wade Clark Roof (1993) in that they are not on an ongoing quest in hopes of finding one, lasting spiritual home. Rather, they enjoy the array of spiritual experiences available to them, and which they can create, in a more open and diverse spiritual environment. This reinforced the idea that traditional categories of believing and belonging are not significant markers of religiosity for Nones, but it challenged the idea that Nones have no interest in spiritual connection with others. Rather, being and becoming spiritual, as that unfolded organically in the course of everyday life and its diverse networks of relationships, were far more important.

3. They’re not inarticulate about religion and spirituality—They’re creating new languages.

Especially in research involving teens and young adults, an assertion has been made by some scholars that religious affiliation is fueled at least in part by Nones’ lack of familiarity and fluency with the languages of the religious traditions in which most of them were raised (Smith and Lindquist, 2005; Dean, 2010). They don’t, that is, learn how to talk about faith in ways that make institutional religious practice a part of their personal religious story.

That may be true in terms of the doctrinal teachings and dogma of traditional religions. But I’m not convinced that a deeper appreciation of Christian atonement theology or the twelve-linked chain of causation in Buddhist teaching would make much of a difference in terms of durable, institutional religious affiliation. The Nones I talked with were remarkably articulate about their own spiritual experience and its significance in their lives once they felt comfortable that their perspectives would be heard without impatience or judgment. I found, in particular, that what is often seen as a dismissive, throwaway phrase, “or whatever,” was in fact often an indication that the person speaking had not yet found language to fully express the particularity of their spiritual experience.

This was especially the case precisely because their experience didn’t map directly to conventional religious belief and practice. Nones often felt that the readily available language was freighted with religious connotations that were problematic, especially for nontheistic Nones. Further, because of the range of stereotypes about Nones as spiritually superficial and narcissistic, many Nones don’t have opportunities to discuss their spiritual lives in great breadth or depth. I found that in their descriptions and explanations of what was spiritually significant in their lives, Nones were often in the process of developing—perhaps for the first time—language that seemed true to their experience.

For example, when I asked Kimberly Arthur, a Secular Humanist from Phoenix, what she meant by “spiritual, or whatever,” she said, “I guess maybe it’s the experiences that people call ‘spiritual’ that I’m talking about. You know, when I say, ‘or whatever,” it’s because ‘spirituality’ isn’t exactly what I’m experiencing, but I don’t know what else you would call it. I mean, it’s just hard to explain when all the words are so loaded. I’ve never really thought about it a whole lot, I guess, what would be a better word. I don’t even know if there is one.”

Processes of spiritual and religious being and becoming trump the classic religious categories of believing, belonging, and behaving for Nones. New modes of networked, cosmopolitan affiliation tend to characterize the way Nones gather through their spiritual lives. And, from this, new stories of spiritual and religious experience that both draw upon and move beyond traditional religious language are beginning to emerge.

– Originally published on the OUPBlog at http://blog.oup.com/2016/04/3-things-about-religious-nones/.


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Epiphany Update: Jesus is Just Alright with (Many) Nones

The weekend after Christmas, a tweeted quote from comedian John Fugelsang made its way from the Huffington Post to the Facebook pages, Pinterest boards, and Twitter feeds of progressive Christians of my ilk:

FugelsangJesus

Fugelsang’s spin on the popular “Jesus was a Liberal” bumper sticker likewise appeared on the social media feeds of many atheists, agnostics, humanists, and sundry other Nones—people who do not claim an institutional religious affiliation—of my social media acquaintance. Many of these were participants in my study of the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated in America, which has involved interviewing nearly a hundred Nones across the United States over the past eighteen months and gathering narrative input from another hundred-and-forty online.

While the appeal to this religiously unaffiliated cohort of such plainly religious (and, not for nothing, political) messaging might come as a surprise to some, according to the 2008 Pew “US Religious Landscape Survey,” seven-in-ten Nones emerge into Noneness from Christian backgrounds. So, it makes sense that the Christian idiom—its narratives, rituals, symbols, professed ethics, and so on—remains a significant resource for many Nones, whether they’re arguing against it’s religious principles and practices or adapting them to what they understand as more meaningful spiritualities.

This was certainly the case for the majority of the Nones I interviewed across the country, regardless of their current self-understanding with regard to religious belief or unbelief, or the practices through which they nurtured and expressed that understanding. Repeatedly, people I interviewed told me how much they admired the Jesus of the Christian Gospels, typically understanding him in much the same light as he appears in the Fugelsang meme—as a radical defender of the poor and outcast. Indeed, as one of their own.

“Being an atheist doesn’t mean I hate Jesus,” a None from North Carolina who had been raised in a nondenominational Evangelical family told me. “You have to love the whole Good Samaritan story, or the way he stood up for the adultery woman. You don’t want to throw that away, because we need those stories.” He paused, “It’s just that my church experience didn’t really focus on that. It was about no sinning, avoiding temptation. It was about helping yourself to get saved, not helping others so much.”

Another None, a Californian who had been brought up as a Presbyterian but now sets an adaptation of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, Hatha yoga, and long mountain hikes at the center of her spiritual life, called on an understanding of Jesus as a social justice exemplar as an important part of her own ethical views. On a small home altar—among assorted crystals; small Buddhist and Hindu figurines; feathers, seashells, small stones collected on nature walks; and photos of family and friends—leaned a contemporary Orthodox-style icon depicting Jesus as the Good Samaritan. When I asked her about it, she explained,

I just was always inspired by that story ever since I was little. You know, that we could be that way toward each other. It’s really the ideal for me of how people should behave. Not “do unto others,” but more like “do what they need when you find them on the road.” That still really matters to me even though I don’t think of myself as a “Christian” in a religious sense anymore. Spiritually, though, I guess I still have that in my personal beliefs—that this was what Jesus stood for and expected us to emulate.

“I think of Jesus first and foremost as a healer,” a secular humanist from Boston who had been educated by Jesuits in Brazil told me. “He’s such an icon for reaching out to people most in need. That didn’t end up making me believe in a supernatural being who gives out miracle cures,” he made clear, “but it’s a big social lesson. It’s really the best side of Christianity.

Indeed, so compelling is this understanding of Jesus to many Nones that in close to a hundred interviews, the story of the Good Samaritan, specifically, came up nearly twenty times. Other Gospel stories of Jesus’s healing and advocacy for those on the margins of society were cited as influential in the spiritualities of these and another thirty Nones. At the end of the day, for half of the people I interviewed, the Jesus of radical compassion and justice remained spiritually and ethically significant regardless of religious identification, affiliation, or practice.

There are a number of ways to read this small body of qualitative data. The first is, of course, that, growth in the unaffiliated notwithstanding, the majority of Americans still identify with one Christian tradition or another. If you’re outside of that normative religious core, you have to contend on some level with the more dominant religiosity of American culture. Nones—like Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, and others outside of institutional Christianity—live in a culture saturated with Christian language, symbols, and rituals. Given this, and the high percentage of Nones who themselves come from Christian backgrounds, reckoning with the significance of Jesus in relation to their own current beliefs and practices will likely factor into both spiritual and wider social identity construction.

But the Good Samaritan and other Gospel narratives also have an ethical resonance with Nones that extends beyond their place in the larger cultural vocabulary for meaning-making. Nancy Ammerman’s study of what she termed “Golden Rule Christians”—practicing believers across Christian denominations and ideological spectrums who take the scriptural teaching that one should “do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Mt. 7:12) as the core Christian value—certainly tracks a similarly generalized Christian ethic. But I would suggest that the ethical perspective of those I might tag as “Good Samaritan Nones” goes somewhat further in ways that are particular to the spiritualities of American Nones.

Very basically, the ethos of “Golden Rule Christianity” is to treat each person we might encounter with the same fairness and respect we would desire ourselves. Philosophers from Emmanuel Kant to Ayn Rand have criticized ethical practice based on the Golden Rule for a variety of reasons. It assumes self as the basis for authentic knowledge of the needs of the other. It ignores the context in which self and other interact. It values reciprocity over self-preservation and, potentially, justice. It offers a general moral principle without defining normative moral action. Christian thinkers, in turn, have robustly argued that the wider Gospel context of the Golden Rule grounds its interpretation in a self-giving love of neighbor exemplified by Jesus Christ.

Still, “Good Samaritan Nones” up the ethical ante on the basis of their understanding the ministry and character of Jesus as calling for more radical ethical action requiring risk, challenge, and even conflict on behalf of the most marginalized and oppressed. Here, the needs of the other are the starting point for moral engagement rather than a presumed commonality between the other and the self. Indeed, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, difference—otherness—in itself is the locus of both moral action and of the moral assessment of the Samaritan as “good.”

“I’m not a Christian anymore,” said an agnostic woman from Nebraska, “but I’m still impressed by the story of the Good Samaritan in the bible, which was about seeing past ethnic or tribal categories. I wish Christians and other religions would learn that. We all just are who we are walking down the road. We want to be seen as no more and no less than that.”

Some Nones I talked with did fairly routinely point out what they saw as hypocrisy in churches that do not exhibit this Jesus-like quality toward whomever their particular others might be. But most focused more on what the Gospel stories continued to mean for them personally in terms of ethical practice outside of institutional churches. Still, even those who did not critique or condemn churches and their members for their failure to live up to the Good Samaritan ethic did not seem to feel that institutional religions were up to the challenge of offering genuinely self-sacrificing service to others.

“You know,” a None in Kansas who described herself as “an agnostic Jesus Follower” told me, “the big church organizations—Habitat [for Humanity] or whatever—will do things like that. Or, maybe after a hurricane. But day to day, week to week, you don’t really see [churches] where you live being involved—out on the streets with homeless people. I think most of them are just trying to hold on to the members they have, to make them happy and comfortable. They take care of their own, in my experience.”

Now, of course, those active in churches will argue—rightly—that most local churches and their members are involved in all manner of ministries to those on the margins of their communities. They staff and donate to food banks, homeless shelters, meal programs, after school programs, environmental initiatives, anti-violence campaigns, and so on tirelessly. But it is also the case that these activities are almost invisible except to those most actively involved, very often within the sponsoring church communities themselves. Even—sometimes especially—to Nones who come from Christian backgrounds, Good Samaritan practices don’t read as being at the spiritual heart of most churches as they present themselves in worship services, websites, and other public platforms.

An “atheist most days” from Virginia who had been raised in a progressive Episcopalian church talked warmly about annual youth group service trips to Haiti, Mexico, New Orleans, and other “areas in need.” He insisted that these trips had been incredibly important in his personal and spiritual development. But, he said, “they were basically extracurricular activities. You went on these trips, and did a presentation at church one week, then that was it. It was just a thing they did for the youth to develop Christian values of charity and compassion, I guess.”

Few churches, it seems, express their identities in the prophetic, radically other-oriented registers illustrated in the Good Samaritan story, even to their own members. For many, Jesus is the cute, swaddled infant of Christmas pageants; the kindly Good Shepherd who leads us beside still waters; the regal risen Christ who triumphs over sin and death. But, he’s not often a dude who would leave the comfort of a cozy church coffee hour with folks of his own social milieu to part with cloak and coin for the benefit of the dazed Iraq war vet with two pit bulls at the highway underpass down the road from church.

It’s possible, then, to read the lingering significance of “Good Samaritan Jesus” for the religiously unaffiliated as a yearning for a more ethically engaged, prophetic Christianity. It does seem to be the case that some of the largest and most vibrant Christian congregations across the denominational and ideological spectrum are those with a pointedly prophetic self-representation. Take the Mars Hill nondenominational industrial complex, for instance, with its booming call to conservative hipster masculinist Christianity; or, in a much more progressive register, All Saints Church, Pasadena, with its sustained advocacy for LGBT inclusion and interreligious engagement. Even the recently launched Sunday Assembly—“a global movement of wonder and good,” according to its website—offers a call to community and service to atheists, humanists, and others among the religiously unaffiliated.

So, do Nones of a more spiritual leaning hunger for participation in religious and/or spiritual institutions that more boldly call for the sorts of practices Good Samaritan Jesus represents? Perhaps some do, but largely, not so much. Or, at least not in the ways religious organizations and religion researchers typically understand participation in religious institutions, in terms of sustained, exclusive affiliation on the model of voluntary membership. Thus, when Pew researchers asked Nones if they were “looking for a religion that would be right for you,” a commanding majority—88%—said, “thanks, but no thanks.”

My qualitative research with Nones, however, cautions me not to read this demographic data as an indication that Nones are necessarily anti-institutional or uninterested in participation in religious organizations overall. Indeed, some twenty percent of the Nones I interviewed were at least somewhat active in traditional religious communities. But the plural here—communities—is important. Many Nones in my study, that is, reported participating on a regular basis in more than one community they identified as spiritual or religious, perhaps taking in a Taizé service at a local church on Saturday evening, practicing yoga a few times a week, and sitting with a meditation group from time to time.

Any enduring attractiveness of Good Samaritan Jesus, then, does not translate into a desire for exclusive Christian affiliation. Indeed, the appeal of Good Samaritan Noneness over Golden Rule Christianity may have much to do with the fact that it is not understood as a universal ethic centered in an exclusive (even if welcoming) community, but as a multiversal one—as an ethic for a profoundly pluralistic, cosmopolitan postmodernity much defined by encounters with wide varieties of ethnic, racial, national, gendered, and religious others. In this cosmopolitan spiritual landscape, Jesus is just alright with Nones—othered as they are by choice or circumstance from traditional religions—to the extent that he is seen as a particularly exemplary inhabitant of the “many dwelling places” in a diverse cosmic household rather than as the keeper of the “narrow gate.”

The appeal of Jesus to Nones, especially as it is characterized in Gospel stories like that of the Good Samaritan, may also have to do with the practical, material enactment of his ministry—his willingness to walk across religious and other social boundaries, through the lives of ordinary people, attending to their suffering, healing their afflictions, welcoming them into relationship—over against the credal or doctrinal expressions of Christianity that have largely characterized the tradition since the Reformation.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you what it means to be ‘saved in Jesus,’ or ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit,’” a former Evangelical None from Missouri told me. “But I get what it is to help someone out, to really put yourself out there for someone going through something bad. I think that was what Jesus was all about. Was that Jesus truly God? At this point in my life, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter. But I do believe it probably felt like that to the people he helped.”


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I Am A Disgrace to Journalism (Or Maybe Not So Much…)

Old Man Yells at CloudA month ago, on the National Day of Prayer, I wrote an article in the Washington Post, “What the ‘Nones’ Teach Us on the National Day of Prayer.” The article piqued the ire of a couple self-described Nones/Atheists, including one Gil Gaudia, PhD, who wrote the following comment (then, when I didn’t respond, made sure to email it to me again):

Your slanderous article about “Nones” is a disgrace to journalism, philosophy and morality. You have mischaracterized the vast majority of people who call themselves “Nones” and certainly the group of thirty-five or so senior citizens in the community where I reside in Eugene Oregon who meet weekly to discuss the issues you claim to be knowledgeable about. Your description of “praying atheists and agnostics” is ludicrous on its face and demonstrates that you simply make it up as you go along. You should be ashamed to call yourself a commentator on religious or nonreligious matters, because it is obvious that the word research means to you about the same as my plumber saying, “I heard that it will be a cold summer this year. 

You say “My research shows that prayer stands alone among traditional practices like attending church and reading scripture,” but you don’t say how you conducted your “research” or who the subject population was. 

Just exactly what do you mean by “prayer” and how would anyone with even a modicum of scientific acumen admit to such an inane practice? To ascribe it the Nones that I know and interact with regularly is an insult to all atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, secular humanists and other non-theists, and a display of gross incompetence and ignorance on your part.

I usually don’t respond to comments on news sites unless someone’s pointed out a factual error (which happens more than I wish, but did not in this case) because I feel like I’ve already had my say in the article. I leave the comment space for readers, from whom I often learn a great deal. Indeed, as I’ll discuss shortly, reader comments have changed my research on Nones in important ways. But, setting aside good Dr. Gaudia’s over the top invectives, his comments reflect more common confusions about Nones and about different kinds of scholarship and writing. So it seems it might be a good idea to respond in some measure. I can’t address all of his complaints in a blog post, but I’ll try to address those that speak to more general questions and confusions.

First, the demographic data on which I base my research is well-known and highly credible. It comes from the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2008), the American Religious Identification Survey (2008), and the Pew “Nones on the Rise Study” (2012), among others. All of these show, first, that relatively few—about 20 percent—of whose who answer “none” when asked with what religion they are affiliated or with which they identify, are unbelievers. Indeed, in the most recent Pew report, four in ten of those who self identify as “Atheist” or “Agnostic” report some level of belief in a divinity, including, say the Pew folk, 14 percent of Atheists. Much of this empirical research has been confirmed in the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the U.S. government, which was recently analyzed by researchers at UC Berkeley and Duke University (2013). Go figure.

Source: Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, "Nones on the Rise," October 2012. Available online at http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

Source: Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, “Nones on the Rise,” October 2012. Available online at http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

My own research is more ethnographic than empirical in nature. That is, I listen to people’s stories and sometimes observe how they practice their spirituality. I have also conducted narrative surveys that allow people to offer written responses to a number of questions about their religious or spiritual perspectives. In light of this research, my hunch, having spoken to many self-described Atheists who retain some sort belief in some sort of supernatural, transcendent reality that influences humanity and creation in direct or indirect ways, is that they aren’t meaning to offer “insult to all atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, secular humanists and other non-theists … [in a] a display of gross incompetence and ignorance.” Rather, in some cases, they value how the label stands ideologically and politically in relation to various religious or spiritual designations. Maybe they don’t entirely understand the complicated historical, political, and lexical meanings of the term, it’s true. Often, it seems, when someone tells me she or he is an Atheist, it seems to mean something along the lines of, “I really don’t want to talk about what I believe, and people leave me alone on that count if I say I’m an ‘atheist.’” Sometimes, too, it means, “I was thinking of myself as an Atheist when you first asked me, then I kind of changed my mind.”

This raises two important points that Dr. Gaudia, and perhaps many others, misunderstand about research on current or historical cultural phenomenon and, further, about religious identity in the current age. With regard to the former, as a researcher, when I ask people how they describe themselves in religious, spiritual, or philosophical terms, I accept the descriptions they offer as valid for them. That is, I don’t say (though sometimes I want to, and I gather that Dr. Gaudia would expect me to), “You know, if you believe in God or prayer or whatever, you really aren’t an Atheist. Stop saying that!). I note what they say, and what they think it means, not what I might think it should mean. It’s an interview, not a quiz.

This is the difference between a theological or philosophical assessment, which would ask if the prayer practice is valid within a particular tradition, and a social or cultural study, which asks what people do when they say they pray and tries to determine how that contributes to changing meanings of the term and associated practices in the wider culture. Lots of people are confused by this distinction, so Dr. Gaudia might be excused for his ignorance on this count (though that would be easier if he were less, you know, nasty).

Thus, having conducted in depth, narrative surveys with more than a thousand people across the country, and having interviewed a few dozen people in considerably more depth, what I’m able to see is certain patterns in how religious identifications and other definitions vary from the more formal, academic definitions that Dr. Gaudia believes I have flagrantly disregarded. (Well, to be fair, I have kind of disregarded such definitions, because my research is not about how well people conform to standard definitions. But I don’t think I’m full on “flagrant” about it.)

Now, many Nones do report praying on a regular basis, including no small number of those who self-identify as Atheist or Agnostic. The most recent Pew report shows more than 40 percent of Nones overall praying at least monthly, including close to 20 percent of those in the Atheist/Agnostic category. In a survey I conducted in 2012, “prayer” was among the top practices that the unaffiliated ranked as “spiritually meaningful”—the only traditional religious practice that made it to the top of the list. Like many people, perhaps—although I hope with fewer preconceived notions about an ironic, almost papal inerrancy about my own perspectives than Dr. Gaudia seems to maintain—I was curious about what it would mean for someone who says she is “atheist” or “agnostic” or “unaffiliated” in some less specific way to “pray.” But, initially, I had bracketed unbelievers out of my study.

I was actually tipped to the modest pervasiveness of prayer and other “spiritual” practices among self-described unbelievers themselves by Atheists and Agnostics themselves, however, after a December 2012 article in Religion Dispatches that offered a short reading list on Nones. In response to the piece, a number of (generally very polite and respectful) Atheists and Agnostics contacted me to ask why I hadn’t included any titles on their “spirituality.” This actually shifted my research away from a more exclusive attention to so-called “religious Nones”—the unaffiliated who claim belief in God or a higher power—to include the narratives of non-believing Nones. Again, rather than evaluating their self-descriptions as “valid” or “invalid” by my definition of “atheist,” “secular,” “humanist,” “freethinker,” “unbeliever,” “skeptic,” and so on, I aimed to listen to theirs and to better understand how they understood “spirituality” and existential meaning-making more generally from the point of view they claimed. I’m facilitating conversation, not conducting midterms.

This confirmed for me a second key point that many people, including no few researchers such as those at the Pew Forum, Gallup, the Barna Group, the GSS, and so on often forget: late modern religious identification and affiliation is not fixed or durable in the same way it has been in previous generations. That is, in a world in which people no longer die before they’re 50—when most of us will live well into our 70s and 80s or beyond—an identity as a Catholic, or an Evangelical, or an Atheist is less and less likely to last a lifetime. For one thing, as Charles Taylor has described as the particular mode of “secularity” that characterizes the present period, we “live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on” (A Secular Age, 11). For another, we simply have more time to think about those “different construals,” to try them on at least notionally, at different times in our lives. Indeed, under the influence of cultural epistemologies and associated practices in the current Digital Age, we might shift identities and affiliations from one week—or day—to the next.

So, the person who answered “Atheist” when asked about her religious preference in a survey on Tuesday, may by Friday be intrigued by Kabbalah. This is no mere fickleness, but rather a real change in how people approach meaning-making in the present day. Religious and spiritual identity are more provisional, more strategic, more malleable over time. Including self-identified Atheists and Agnostics in my work on the spiritual lives of Nones has allowed me to see what I think are much more significant patterns in American religiosity from the ground up than I would had applied rigid, fundamentalist, definitions of “Atheist” and “prayer” that, say, Pat Robertson and Dr. Gaudia might apply. I’ll have much to say about this in Choosing Our Religion when it’s released next spring. It’s not the sort of material that one covers in an 800-word article for a general readership news outlet.

Now, responding to Dr. Gaudia has required a very, very long blog post, and I appreciate your attention if you’ve made it this far. Indulge me for one final note on what I suspect are the “Nones” of Dr. Gaudia’s more local, Pacific Northwest experience. For some time, the Pacific Northwest was known a “The None Zone.” Well before the blossoming of religious unaffiliation and disidentification in the rest of the United States, some 30 percent of the population in the region identified as “humanist” or having “no religion,” with more than 60 percent claiming “no religious affiliation,” according to a fine collection of academic essays edited by Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk (2004) that drew on data primarily from 2001 and 2000, and slightly earlier.

I expect that Dr. Gaudia and his None community in Eugene have a very different experience of unaffiliation than do the more recently going population of Nones elsewhere in the country. Which is to say, when we look outside the window, most of the time we don’t see the world, we see our world.


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Being None

What is religion? If one identifies this with the great historic faiths, or even with explicit belief in supernatural beings, then it seems to have declined. But if you include a wide range of spiritual and semi-spiritual beliefs; or if you cast your net even wider and think of someone’s religion as the shape of their ultimate concern, then indeed, one can make a case that religion is as present as ever.

~ Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 427

579px-Morfar

By Matheus Siqueira (Made from scratch) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It feels like I’ve been reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age for the last decade (though of course that can’t be true). I gave it a reasonably thorough scan when it first came out in 2007, and began rereading of it in more detailed earnest earlier this year. I frequently joke that I don’t agree with Taylor often enough, but what with the book weighing in at some 800 pages, I’m not planning to take up many more articulations of how secularity unfolds in Western history. Still, my many conversations with the religiously unaffiliated increasingly convince me that Taylor has much of the religious history right, but “misrecognizes” a good bit of the spirituality.

Ultimately, Taylor has a hard time with the in-between—with the idea, for instance, that a postmodern person might orient meaning-making practices within what he calls “the immanent frame” over a traditional “transcendent frame,” but that she might nonetheless experience moments of self-transcendence that point, if not decisively to a divine supernatural being or force, to something much larger than herself that matters in a particularly rich and fulfilling way that may reorient her life project. In the end, Taylor wants to suggest that it is possible, and indeed necessary, to choose between belief and unbelief, religion or not, as these are situated within an arguably (but not narrowly) Roman Catholic Christian transcendent frame. To experience the transcendent within the immanent frame and not wholly be turned toward the former, Taylor argues, is to be “responding to the transcendent reality, but misrecognizing it. … shutting out crucial features of it.” [768] It cannot, for Taylor, be both/and, or, perhaps more accurately, it cannot be one within the other.

Yet, of course, for his early followers and many later Christians, Jesus was exactly this: the transcendent expressed, lived, and experienced within the immanent. So fully was it the case that the immanent divine was experienced in Jesus, his teachings, and his Way that the Jesus of the New Testament made clear, and instructed his disciples to teach, that the Kingdom of God was present in the here and now reality of human life, infused, as the immanent frame always is in the Christian worldview, with the transcendent. Never either/or. Always both/and—always in the in-between.

Many of the religiously unaffiliated around the United States with whom I talked these last couple years don’t quite see it this way, particularly when Christian language comes into the conversation. If they sometimes experience a sense of what Taylor calls “fullness”—”a richness; that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be.” [5]—it is not, as Taylor insists, ultimately imbued with the transcendent. Some do see it something along those lines, yet still they resist Taylor’s assumed relationship between experience and durable, propositional belief. They report that they experience what they think of as moments of engagement with a transcendent “something,” but they are not particular keen to nail down what that means. In fact, much of the “fullness” experienced in such moments comes precisely from not insisting on a particular meaning, certainly not one that can be retained though all time.

This is what I’m beginning to think Taylor misses and what many of us who continue to practice religion, spirituality, faith, or whatever we might call it in some relationship with institutional churches also miss: the idea of process, of fullness unfolding in meaning and re-meaning throughout a life, of malleability and impermanence as markers of meaning-as-it-is-being-known, rather than as markers of belief. For many of the Nones I talk with, this sense of organic meaning-making, of attentiveness to an enriched now, an immanence perhaps enriched with transcendence, is the fluid center of their spiritual lives.

The truth for me is that I remain Mainline Protestant enough that often I kind of don’t get it. I dutifully take notes while I’m thinking that the person to whom I’m listening just can’t commit. She’s confused about her experience, I’ll think. He doesn’t know how reliant he is on theistic meaning-making structures, I’ll note. But more and more I do understand that they’re reaching for something else, something not yet named on its own terms in the either the past or the present that calls both on the language of immanence and the language of transcendence, then reaches beyond them.

To what? To what?

That’s the $64,000 religious question, and I surely don’t have the answer. But I do think the beginning of the answer is in language—in how we talk about experience, meaning, religion, spirituality, and how we continue to be infected by dualistic language that shuts out much of the provocative, productive, meaning rich in-between.

So, maybe the question isn’t so much “what?” Maybe it’s more “how?” How do we stay in conversation, in relationship, stay attentive and engaged in the process of change as the change is happening?

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