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.”


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/.


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:


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.”


White Noise: Christian Whispers and Shouts on the Trayvon Martin Case

White Noise“I don’t want to say this in a public forum,” began the first email message in response to my blog post yesterday on my own hesitation to attend church—to participate in “the most segregated hour in America”—on a day when I suspected there would be little real engagement with the issues underlying the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. The writer went on to describe her progressive, white, suburban church’s response—or lack thereof—to the verdict. “I almost burst into tears at the ‘white noise’ of the liturgy,” she wrote.

Through the day, I would receive forty-three such emails,* another four of them this morning, most beginning with some version of the confession that what the writer was about to share was not something that she or he could say on Facebook or Twitter, where congregants, clergy, or colleagues might read it. They came from laypeople (29) and clergy (18); from seminary and university professors (5) and seminarians (12).** Most (41) of the writers were white, but African American (4), Latina/o (1); and Asian (1) correspondents from mostly white churches also contacted me—they, too, expressing a reluctance to speak publicly about how the Martin case was addressed in their churches.

“I could almost feel the physical strain of members of my almost all white congregation—we’re the only black family—trying not to look at me and my daughters as the pastor talked about ‘who is my neighbor’ in the sermon without saying anything about the young man killed on the side of the road in Florida,” a former student from Ohio told me. But, he explained, he didn’t want to make his teenaged daughters feel any more awkward or uncomfortable than he worried they already did. “I didn’t want to make a thing out of it,” he said, “but I was hurt by it.”

A seminarian who is interning at a church in Michigan asked her supervising rector if she should add something to the Prayers of the People about the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial verdict. “Only if you want an empty collection plate,” the rector responded.

Several laypeople talked about wanting to discuss how their churches might respond to the case in the wider community, but they had no idea how to broach the subject in the congregation or with their clergy. “I’ve only been here for a few months,” one person wrote. “I’m not sure it’s my place to say what we should be doing as a community.”

Another wrote, “I was so angry after the sermon today. It was so abstract—nothing to do with anything in the real world, least of all the Trayvon Martin case. But,” she continued, “I’m just getting to know the new rector, and I don’t want to stand out as a complainer at this point. I’m disappointed with myself, but I didn’t feel like I should say anything.”

Still another confessed, “I don’t go all that often, but I did want to be there today. I guess I just expected that something would be said to acknowledge the whole situation and help me sort through it. There was nothing besides ‘love thy neighbor’ fluff. But, I only go maybe once a month or so. Who am I to complain?”

The tone of the comments I received through the day highlighted this silence from the pulpit and from parishioners themselves, and the “white noise” humming over it, so consistently that by evening I was still mulling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A comment a friend had posted on Facebook on the Saturday the verdict was announced turned over and over in my head. Then, having noted the gospel reading set in the Common Lectionary, I’d tweeted, “Hey preachers: Luke 10:25-37 for tomorrow. Time to change it up.”

My friend Matt responded, drawing on a teaching of David Steindl-Rast, that one of the ways in which the Good Samaritan story addressed the idea of social privilege was in the inability or unwillingness of the legal expert quizzing Jesus to so much as say “Samaritan.”

“When Jesus asked ‘who was a neighbor to the beaten man?,’” Matt wrote, “the only answer the lawyer could give was ‘the one who showed him mercy.’ He could not even name the Samaritan. At this moment, what are we unable to even name that gets to the core of the matter?”

Certainly, the bigger answer to Matt’s question includes things like “white privilege” and “racism,” things like “justice” and “equity.” But it also struck me that there was a simpler silence that brought these more complex concepts to a human level: the silence in many churches around the very name of the teenager who was killed in Florida, Trayvon Martin—the slain young man who calls into question all of our theological musings about what it means to treat someone as a “neighbor.”

As a starting point, I thought, we at least need to be saying and hearing that name in our churches, holding the reality of the lost human life it stands for in our hearts. In my multitasking way, I was thinking about this while also scanning Twitter where, on most Sunday evenings, a wide selection of the day’s sermons begin popping up from around the U.S. and across the globe. One after another, I clicked through them—sixteen in total before I lost patience, at which point I tweeted:

If you preached a sermon today w/out saying the name ‪#‎TrayvonMartin‬, you need to rethink your vocation. Just sayin…

Almost immediately, a flurry of clergy began complaining on Twitter and Facebook that I’d been unfair, insulting, judgmental, arrogant, unkind, thoughtless, and more. I hadn’t, I was told, considered congregational contexts and sensitivities, the difficulty of changing up sermons on the fly in light of the responsibilities of a clergyperson on Sunday, the need for time to reflect before speaking, and so on. Perhaps most, I was taken to task for calling into question people’s vocations.

Now, with good reason, clergy can be a defensive lot when called to task, fairly or otherwise. For one thing, most clergy I know are called to task quite often by various parishioners on issues ranging from drone strikes, to the offertory hymn, to the brand of tissue in the loo. Most are overworked, and underpaid, and pretty much all of them, like teachers and nurses, are undervalued in the culture. Many people inside the church and out assume that, outside of presiding and preaching at Sunday services, a clergyperson’s day consists mainly of reflecting on scripture, taking tea with the odd ailing shut-in, and organizing bible-themed games for the youth group. This could hardly be further from the truth in all but the very rarest of cases. But the result of the skewed perception means that many clergy live in a sour spot between the assumption that they do only what is seen in public and complaints about their performance therein.

So, it seems easy to understand the touchiness of many clergypeople when anyone pokes around at vocations they commit to against very great, often very daily, pressures to do otherwise. I get it. And, I’ll grant that my words were strong. Perhaps I might, as one commentator suggested, have asked how clergy had approached discussing the verdict in their congregations. If not in the sermon, I might have queried, why not? How otherwise was the topic explored?

I might have done that. But the truth is that I don’t expect the ensuing conversation would have been especially meaningful. I don’t think this moment in the moral history of the country calls for genteel reflection. And, I can’t imagine very many congregational contexts in the American Church in which a note from the pulpit that the nation is (once again) struggling with matters of race, legal equity, and social justice would not be appropriate—even though I know there are many such contexts in which such a note would be disturbing, provocative, and otherwise unwelcome.

To wit, several clergy contacted me after having tried their best to at least nod to the Martin case only to be rebuffed by congregants.

A Roman Catholic priest who serves an affluent, white congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, added two sentences to his seven-minute homily on the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Maybe we think this difficulty with understanding who is our neighbor and how we should respond to them is a feature of ancient tribal rivalries that we don’t suffer from in our modern age. But we only have to look at the headlines to see that when people who don’t look like us walk through neighborhoods like ours, we often have a hard time truly seeing them as ‘neighbors.’”

No mention of Trayvon Martin or his killer. No labored reflection or confused, unfocused reactions. Just a note “at the intersection of Word and community” as both exist in much wider world to which said community is obligated.

When the priest offered a communion wafer to a congregant who is a significant donor to the church, he reported, the man met “The Body of Christ” with “Keep your opinions to yourself.”

Another followed a similar path in amending the sermon with a sentence or two. She was scolded by the largest donor to the church, “It sounded like Cornell West up there!”

Other clergy have apparently had that sort of experience enough in the past to know better than to try. “I preached about immigration last year in what I thought was the most temperate of ways and about poverty, which I’d think Christians would be concerned about regardless of political leaning,” said a minister from a church in Colorado. “Both sermons were cited in my annual review as evidence of my preaching being ‘too political’ and ‘not spiritual enough.’ I give up,” she wrote.

I’d be inclined to give up, too, I suppose. Indeed, I’ve walked away from this post several times today because, like most people, I find arguing disheartening and exhausting. Even when I feel like I’m right, I don’t like having the smug, self-righteous tone that the privileged position of having a public voice can provoke in me when I’m pissed off called out by people I respect and admire. The whole of it just sucks. None of it feels good.

In the end, however, we just can’t give up. Too much is at stake.

We are in the process of losing the Church, giving up on the vision of a Kingdom of love and justice that Jesus invited us to join us in creating. You may well think the growing population of the unaffiliated—Nones—are uncommitted, narcissistic, vapid bores. (I could write a book about how you’re wrong about that…) But we have to contend with the fact that the majority of Nones are being formed in our churches. They’re hearing our sermons, sitting through our liturgies, seeing us act in the world on the basis of the beliefs we profess. And we are again and again found wanting, particularly at moments when the larger culture (from which the Church is not excused) is focused on events like the announcement of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. Particularly when the voices of people with a claim to some measure of moral and social insight are needed most. Again, I just don’t know of many contexts in which saying something about that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Finally, I know that the strong words and feelings in this conversation have clearly been difficult to work though. But, however imperfect our words might be—mine especially, perhaps—however uncomfortable the feelings they provoke, they are better than white noise humming over to many of our churches, making so many of us—laypeople and clergy alike—feel that we cannot speak, that we cannot risk speaking, that the context won’t tolerate it.

At times like these, those of us with the privilege of any kind of pulpit or public platform simply must speak. Trust me, if we don’t get it exactly right, someone will let us know. In which case, we’ll still be in conversation.


*I’ve adapted quotes from these emails to protect the anonymity of the correspondents.

**The numbers add to more than forty-seven because of overlap across categories. That is, some of the seminary professors are also clergy as are some of the seminarians.

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As Religion Dispatches Turns

Religion DispatchesThis week Religion Dispatches, where I write reasonably regularly as a senior correspondent, shared news about a reality of digitally-integrated, late modern life with which most of us are familiar: everything changes. A nonprofit publication that occupies a unique place on the religion journalism landscape at the intersection of academic discourse and thoughtful reflection that appeals to an educated general readership, RD has found its institutional and administrative home in educational settings, first with Emory University and more recently with Auburn Theological Seminary. This has allowed funders to have a perhaps more settled confidence that things financial would be overseen by folks accustomed to that while also, at least in theory, allowing RD the kind of editorial latitude that has enabled it to take on topics from which other publications might shy away or at least be slow to consider.

Focusing only on my own contributions, for instance, RD was the first national magazine to take up the religious dimensions of the Occupy Wall Street movement, to explore the relationship between new media and religion from beyond a “gee wiz, isn’t that app cool!” perspective, and to invite reflection on the wider cultural implications of the growing number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated. Among my RD colleagues, contributions from Joanna Brooks opened up Mormonism as a more complex and ideologically diverse tradition than had previously been explored in  popular or many academic publications. Haroon Moghul‘s contributions on Muslims in America have enriched and significantly shifted perceptions well beyond the academy. If time permitted, I could go on about the work of RD regulars like Peter Laarman, Candace Chellew-Hodge,  Kathryn Joyce, and others. For now, however, I merely note that the real and perceived editorial integrity, creativity, and courage displayed by RD since it first blinked onto screens in 2007 has been no small part of the unique and valuable contribution it has allowed contributors to offer to a world in which, however much pollsters may report declines in religious participation and influence, the complexities of religious practice and belief remain meaningful in politics, education, culture, and everyday life in general. Finding an institutional partner with the culture and character to encourage and support that work is a huge deal, and I’m glad that RD is transitioning to just such a space over the next few weeks.

I’ll certainly continue to publish with RD during the transition, and I’ll celebrate RD’s move to a new institutional home come midsummer. I encourage you to visit often and to share your own stories on how RD has been meaningful to you and what you’d like to hear more about in the future.


Praying a Mystery

PrayingI’ve been writing a great deal of late about prayer. The bulk of this is in the context of my research and writing as a journalism fellow on the Social Science Research Council’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer (NDSP) initiative, through which I’m studying how the religiously unaffiliated—some 40% of whom report that they pray on a regular basis—approach prayer. What does someone who thinks of herself as an agnostic or an atheist mean when she says she “prays”? What is prayer for people who believe in God or a Higher Power but who engage that being or force primarily outside of institutional religion and its more formal, liturgical, and theological conceptions of prayer? When someone tweets #PrayForBoston or #PrayForOklahoma after a tragedy, what might she or he be gesturing toward in terms of the disposition and action of the person who prays, the subject of the prayer, and its possible object?

In the Christian tradition, prayer has been understood as inherently intersubjective—and engagement between a human who prays and the god who hears and answers that prayer. There’s an element, too, of prayer as sacrificial or at least consequential for the person who prays, as when Jesus prays, “Father, take this cup away from me,” but adds, “yet, not my will, but yours be done,” sacrificing his deepest desire to the presumed higher will of God. We pray for what we need, what we desire, that is, but we temper our human longing with deference to the divine will within which we live, and move, and  have our being.

For many of the religiously unaffiliated I’ve interviewed or who have responded to my Nones Beyond the Numbers online narrative survey, prayer is something more intrasubjective. Influenced significantly by a very generalized understanding of Buddhist mindfulness meditation and practices of depth psychology, “prayer” is a deeper exploration of the self, an intrapsychic opening toward a certain register of calm within which the “authentic self” can better be heard. For some Nones, this practice is consequential in the sense that what they learn in prayer about their deepest, truest desires calls them to new modes of action in the world, and this is often action on behalf of others. “I came to see,” one None told me, “that I’m not this person who is basically a money-making, thrill-seeking machine. That’s not who I want to be. I can be more than that. I can be someone who really matters, who makes a difference—dorky as that sounds.”

I’ve also argued here and there that prayer also serves a discursive function, holding a space in our cultural lexicon for simultaneous expressions of anxiety and hope, as with all the prayer tweeting during crises. When someone tells me he “prays” for peace in the world, or help in a crisis, or for a parking space around the next corner, very often that has nothing to do with turning to a supernatural being or force for help or reaching inward for a clearer vision of what might be possible. It means something like, “I’m worried about violence in the world, and I hope it will stop.” As I wrote recently in Religion Dispatches, “No other word in English, so far as I know, marks that register as does the word ‘prayer.’” You don’t meditate for a parking space. You don’t contemplate help on your chem exam. You pray, whether you believe a god is listening to those prayers or not.

I began by noting that most of my reflection on prayer has been in the context of the NDSP project, but not all of it. A year or so ago, I started working on a novel, The Prayer Chain, that has turned out to be about prayer as all of the above, I guess, but also an opening to the imagination—as a particular space that allows for mental experiments in anxiety, hope, freedom, and transformation. As I read back over the story of a daughter, a sister, and a cousin dealing with the extended coma of a loved one as a result of a random, recreational accident, I also see that prayer is a tableau within which we might also experiment with various conceptions of the divine, its powers, its agency, its fluctuating reality in our day-to-day life. It’s a space within which we rehearse various ethical contingencies. Drawing perhaps on the deep Latin root of the word “pray,” precari, “to ask, to beg, to entreat,” it is where we hold and explore our questions. It holds, then, always a certain mystical capacity—a space in which mystery is gathered, engaged, and, depending on what you believe, resolved.

Of course, I hardly have all the answers here. No one does. So, I wonder, do you pray? How does prayer mean for you?


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


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?