American Nones and a New Way of Being Religious?

Every once and a while, someone comes along and, without any clue that they’re doing […]

David Zahl / 12.15.11

Every once and a while, someone comes along and, without any clue that they’re doing so, articulates exactly what it is you’re trying to do with your life in a way that both focuses and reignites your excitement. Eric Weiner’s column in last weekend’s NY Times, “Americans and God,” was such an instance for me. Weiner is concerned with the rapidly growing religious demographic known as the Nones, the group of primarily younger folks in this country who may believe in God but are uncomfortable affiliating with an organized religion. The two main reasons he cites are the political ramifications involved in identifying oneself as religious, and the stultifying self-seriousness associated with believers. I couldn’t agree more! I’ve commented on the article at some length after the excerpts:

For some of us, the season affords an opportunity to reconnect with our religious heritage. For others, myself included, it’s a time to shake our heads over the sad state of our national conversation about God, and wish there were another way… For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?

The rest of us, it turns out, constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones, the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones. Apparently, a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God. 

Why the rise of the Nones? David Campbell and Robert Putnam, of the University of Notre Dame and the Harvard Kennedy School, respectively, think politics is to blame. Their idea is that we’ve mixed politics and religion so completely that many simply opt out of both; apparently they are reluctant to claim a religious affiliation because they don’t want the political one that comes along with it.

We are more religiously polarized than ever. In my secular, urban and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but God? He is for suckers, and Republicans. I used to be that way, too, until a health scare and the onset of middle age created a crisis of faith, and I ventured to the other side. I quickly discovered that I didn’t fit there, either.

Nones don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.” (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)

By that measure, there is very little “good religion” out there. Put bluntly: God is not a lot of fun these days. Many of us don’t view religion so generously. All we see is an angry God. He is constantly judging and smiting, and so are his followers. No wonder so many Americans are enamored of the Dalai Lama. He laughs, often and well.

What is the solution? The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America. We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.

As we all know, when specific political stances – or worse, political parties – are tied to Christian faith, either explicitly or implicitly, you do both a disservice. As people grow up, they no doubt come to realize that there’s a wide spectrum of political conviction among religious people, and vice versa – or they cling to their stereotypes as a defense against the painful areas of human experience that religion (theoretically) addresses. But certainly you can’t blame a person for confusing the two, at least not if they’ve grown up in this country during the last 25 years or so. While we didn’t really have politics in mind when we started Mockingbird (beyond escaping politics!), it sure is gratifying when we hear that people of all political persuasions find this to be a relatively safe place, where religious and spiritual issues are presented as universal (reality and “Christian reality” being the same thing!). Which is convenient, as any attempt to alter the public perception of how religion relates to political partisanship is a fool’s errand, as far as it goes. We can’t control these things.

The second obstacle Weiner mentions, however, is the one closer to my heart. While he may go further in the utilitarian direction than we might (“if it works, it must be true”), certainly the failure of our religion to connect with the reality of life as people actually live it is a real problem. He’s right: Christians take themselves way too seriously. It’s really tragic – and such a perversion of the Gospel. It derives, as we never tire of saying, from an inflated anthropology – that your “witness” (or report/testimony to those around you) is based on your transformed life rather than what happened on Calvary, on your ability to love rather than God’s love for you despite yourself. Not that those things aren’t important, it’s just that when we believe the salvation of the world (or even ourselves) is in our hands, when we give an inch in the Pelagian direction on the issue of God’s grace, we not only won’t be able to let anything go, we won’t be able to find humor in our own foibles! I mean, who wants to hang out with a bunch of moral policemen? Of course, this is not limited to Christians; it’s just as pronounced in other communities which think too highly of human potential – legalism is a human tendency, not a strictly religious one. And it’s joyless.

From the start, we have hoped that Mockingbird would convey a healthy sense of irreverence, not as an image thing, but just because it’s the only sane way to operate in a “world gone wrong” (Dylan). What’s the Chesterton quote again? “The optimist looks at the world and thinks ‘The situation is serious, but not hopeless.’ But the Christian looks at the world and thinks, ‘The situation is hopeless – but not serious.’” People mistake this for cynicism, but I’d rather be accused of cynicism than self-righteousness – which is probably a self-righteous thing to say.

As for Eric’s proposed solution, the coming of a “Steve Jobs of religion,” I can’t say it doesn’t sound appealing. A more modest hope might be to keep laughing, laughing, laughing. Lord knows there’s no shortage of material!