Growing up in the space age, I was—like most of the children in my community and around the country—smitten with the race to the moon. And while nothing to date has matched the thrill that night in 1969 when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, my interest in space travel and science has never ended. How can it, when our knowledge, and understanding of what is left to explore, grows everyday?
Exploration—it has driven humanity from the very beginning. When teaching Western Civilization years ago at the University of South Carolina, my students were most floored by how mobile early cultures were. For the Phoenicians, the ocean was not a boundary to be feared but a highway to discovery. Vikings and Germanic tribes had wanderlust seemingly in their blood.
I thought of all this as I reviewed a recent study released by the estimable U.S. Congregational Life Survey conducted by my friend Cynthia Woolever. While the numbers of participants in congregations continue to decline, the study finds five reasons to feel hopeful about congregations. As summarized by David Briggs at The ARDA:
More caring ministries: Congregations and their members are more active outside the sanctuary walls. In the latest survey, 18 percent of worshippers said wider community care and advocacy were one of the three most valued aspects of the congregation; in 2001, just 11 percent ranked community care in the top three. Worshippers in 2008-2009 also were significantly more likely to report that they were involved in social service or advocacy groups outside the congregation and contributed money to a charitable group other than the church.
Climbing the academic ladder: The percentage of worshipers with a college degree rose from 38 percent in 2001 to 47 percent in the latest survey. “In the past, the pastor was often the most educated person in the room – but not any more.” researcher Cynthia Woolever says. And that matters. “These highly educated worshipers have high expectations about the content/style of worship, how decisions are made, and the efficiency of congregational ‘achievement,’” she adds.
Keeping up with the technological times: The 2008-2009 survey found more than three-quarters of congregations had established websites, up from 43 percent in 2001. In addition to keeping members informed of upcoming events, more than half of the sites post sermons and list opportunities for service. Seventy-four percent of congregations also use e-mail in ways that range from publicizing events to sharing joys and concerns of churchgoers and sending out devotional messages.
More diverse leadership: You just have to look around in many churches to notice a gender imbalance. Still, survey researchers say the consistent finding that six in 10 worshipers are women remains one of their most asked-about results. What is growing, however, is the diversity of leadership in mainline Protestant churches, where 28 percent of pastors are women, up from 20 percent in 2001. New research using survey data also finds female pastors are in general more satisfied in their ministry than male pastors and are strong in welcoming new people. Almost two in five pastors of growing churches are women.
Happy people in the pews: Eighty-seven percent of worshipers in the latest survey said they were satisfied with their spiritual life, up from 82 percent who expressed satisfaction in the 2001 survey. More than three in four worshippers say they always or usually experience a sense of God’s presence, inspiration and joy in worship. Nearly nine in 10 respondents said worship helps them with everyday living.
What’s missing? The exploration. Better put, any sense that there is something new to learn by attending church.
To be sure, there is a great deal of “learning” that goes on. But as the list above shows, it’s inward growth—growth that makes us better people. People who go to church are “satisfied with their spiritual li[ves],” and they’re more “concerned about community care.” These are valuable things to “learn.” They are important. And churches will long have a role to play in propagating these lessons.
The problem is, there is nothing here that can’t be learned in other civil institutions. I wonder if members of lodges and social organizations don’t feel equally good about how their organizations make them feel about themselves and the communities they live in.
And this is something that ministerial leaders are acutely aware. As one minister says to me, “if this is all we are, we are nothing more than a social service group.” So, what sets the church apart? Why would people want to become involved?
For most of the church’s life, there was much to explore. Understanding who Jesus “was” in the ancient church was no intellectual exercise—it as a real exploration into the relationship between a very real God and a very troubled creation. Anselm’s ontological proof was no mere fantasy, but arose out of real questions surrounding the reality of God emerging in the Middle Ages. Arguments over who could be baptized or receive communion consumed Jonathan Edwards because lives were genuinely at stake in the decision.
Today, these questions are no longer questions of exploration, but history. Interesting, to be sure; complex; but not on the cutting edge. Arguments over the person of Jesus seem a waste of time when our very understanding of just how vast the universe we inhabit, and how insignificant we may really be, is being hotly debated. Questions of communion are hard to take seriously as we come closer to understanding and manipulating the building blocks upon which we are created.
No matter if one looks toward the stars, or inward to the Higgs boson, exploration is alive and well and redefining what it means to be human. The idea that we require a “standard” by which to measure our growth (the Bible or the historical debates over humanity and sin and theology) rings hollow in the face of our shifting definitions of what life itself is and whether or not the universe itself is a breathing organism that faces its own mortality.
For all these reasons, I have increasingly come to believe that exploration is dead in churches—conservative and liberal—because there’s nothing left within faith to explore.
The faithful have struggled to name those who are increasingly uninterested in what the church is selling. We’re called “Nones,” or “Homeless,” or “atheists,” or “agnostics.” The list goes on. The problem I have with all these names is that they are efforts on the part of the faithful to name those of us who no longer feel compelled to look to the church for our sustenance.
And each of these names suggests that we have chosen this path because we’ve lost something, because we don’t have a place in the institution to push our boundaries of spiritual growth.
But the truth is, it’s not what we’ve lost, but what the formal religions have lost—a sense of exploration. An ability to teach us anything new.
In case you missed it–and unless you’re a voracious news junkie, you probably did–the “Nones” were meeting last month in Atlanta at the annual Heads Meeting. As I didn’t receive my invite, I decided to do a bit of digging into this meeting…. But interest quickly waned.
The upshot of the event, after all, is about organizing groups as disparate as the American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry into a glorified political action committee.
” ‘It is not enough that we are growing in numbers,’ said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. ‘We have got to find a way to bring those numbers to bear in an organized fashion so that people will take us seriously.’ “
I’m not exactly sure what “take us seriously” is supposed to mean. If it’s, as the Center for Inquiry states in its mission statement, “to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values,” I’m afraid that they’ve lost me and a large number of other nones.
A close look at the most recent Pew survey of nones–or the “religiously unaffiliated,” as Pew prefers to describe us–reveals that not all nones are humanists. Not by a long shot. Yes, nearly 20% of Americans self-identify as religiously unaffiliated. But nothing near a majority of these identify as atheist or humanist.
To pull straight from the report’s executive summary:
many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.
The only catch is, these people aren’t looking for a spiritual home. So what are we looking for?
This question has haunted me for some time now, and no doubt perplexed the pastor of the church that I occasionally help out–though to this point have never joined, nor have any real desire to join.
As the Pew study shows, and as I can attest among many of my friends, the likes of the Head Meeting aren’t what we’re after. In fact, I–and I suggest others–see a great deal of similarity in the groups that make up the Head Meeting, as well as those on the religious right and left.
Each claims with an equal level of vigilance, and too often vitriol, to know who god is (or isn’t). The patterns are almost predictable. Consider the what happened in the wake of the Super Bowl.
When the retiring Ray Lewis stood atop the podium one last time with the Lombardi Trophy in hand, he proclaimed boldly, if God is with us, who can be against us?! From the keyboards of my many progressive religious friends came an outpouring of disgust with Lewis’s “lousy theology.” Among those in more conservative circles, a cautious defense of the man. And among the atheists? Disgust that god should even be mentioned.
Each position set upon the belief that they “know” what god is, or is not.
But for many nones, those assumptions are much too swallow. For god, whether real or not, is ultimately unknowable and unprovable. Atheists can make solid arguments that there is no god by undermining the idea that god is revealed in sacred text because of the many problems with these (not a difficult feat to accomplish). But following scientific principles, they ultimately cannot disprove god. Progressives and conservatives point to the same bible to show who god “is.” But to accept the bible as any sort of authority on the matter takes faith, and, in our age of textual analysis, a significant leap of faith.
Ray Lewis’s words didn’t particularly bother me. I know his story through the media, his many trials and tribulations, and can appreciate why he’s so adamant. No harm, no foul. What I and many others do find bothersome are the endless cycles of ad nauseum proofs from all sides about why Lewis is wrong and they are right.
For many nones, it’s not about being right. It’s ultimately about getting back to a more honest discussion of spirituality. But where do we do that, and how?
Back to Church
For all the faults with church, it’s the one place, still, where an honest discussion of the spiritual is still possible. To some degree, religious studies departments at universities play this role, but marginally, and with less passion as the discipline gains more acceptance as a social “science.”
For all their flaws, congregations are the one place where one can explore faith honestly–in the best of circumstances. In the worst, they are pressure cookers for conversion. Among progressives, to particular political and social views. Among conservatives, to particular doctrines.
The Pew study bears out that nones are still finding their way to church, because they know of no other institutions to attend. It’s an uneasy–though not unholy–alliance. And one ultimately that will morph into something new for nones. Though what is still anyone’s guess.
A Respect for Experience
And we don’t know what the future looks like because the experience for many (if not most?) nones is still grounded in the experience of American Protestantism. An experience that says faith is singular and personal. And for that reason, the experience of faith among nones is singular to each individual; it is personal, and not for public consumption.
Even in breaking from faith traditions, we remain bound by the strictures of faith experience. And to those strictures, we have no answers. No answers, that is, save those coming from the Heads Meeting. It looks at the moment to be the best solution a small percentage of the nones have–simply abandon faith.
But this is a trek down the wrong path. Because this movement by default denies the legitimacy of faith experience. No matter what it may look or feel like. Or who may experience it.
Just before the Christmas break, I agreed to be interviewed by a friend from the virtual world, Elizabeth Drescher, for an article she was then working on about Nones and their holiday traditions. I’ve known Elizabeth, virtually, for several years now, and even wrote an endorsement for her recent book, Tweet If You Love Jesus. It goes without saying that I admire her work—especially her writings about the “Nones.”
The questions were fair, and the interview was fun—though I wandered too much at times beyond what she was looking for, I’m sure; but then, I’m want to ramble. Did my religious “beliefs” (quotation marks are mine) get in the way with family interactions this time of year? How do I define myself? How do we celebrate the holidays?
I tried to answer as honestly as I could. But in the days since that interview, I have come back to think again about not only what I said, but about what the interview told me about myself. To be interviewed as a representative of an emerging group (my words) is an unsettling feeling. In part because one rarely feels “representative” of a group; but also because you want to speak articulately about where you and your group are going—and realize that you really can’t.
As scholars turn their attention increasingly to explaining Nones, the awkwardness becomes more acute. Some academics—good scholars of religion—write tomes about how Nones really aren’t new, but, as Drescher summarizes one of these writers, functioning within a “ ‘historiography of connection’ ” for which [the writer] calls places spiritual and religious practice in the context of popular culture and political change, offering valuable insight into the current fascination with the religiously unaffiliated, changes in religiosity, and the evolution of American secularity.” (Whew—that’s a mouthful. I never knew we were that interesting or complicated.)
Others, like Drescher, work to understand Nones on their own terms.
The irony with most of the Nones I know, however, is that we ourselves don’t really worry about these questions. Assuredly, the academics are right—when I speak about what I am, I am very much aware that I am defining myself within the framework of a Christianity that I was raised in; I find it difficult to define myself in terms other than negative.
But younger members of this generation—three of whom live in my household (my three children)—are unburdened by even this handicap. Culturally, surely, they have absorbed much of Christianity, but not practically. Unlike those of my generation who grew up in church, the younger people have never been deeply involved with church.
We tried with our own children several times. It never worked. It never worked because they never themselves either experienced faith in that context (no doubt because we as parents never felt comfortable pushing it or even talking about it), or were ever able to really understand what was animating people to attend in the first place.
It is this discomfort, more than anything else, that I believe is the key to what is happening with this burgeoning group of people called “Nones.” Fine to call people of my generation Nones. But of younger people, perhaps the better term is Disinterested.
I am not a scholar of human nature or child rearing, so I’ll leave aside any grand theories about why younger people simply don’t feel motivated to wrestle with questions of faith the way that people of my generation have. I will suffice to observe that this is true.
This past Sunday, the realization hit home as I sat in my local church. Yes, I am a None but I attended church on occasion. My children, not coincidentally, did not. They chose to stay home—they had no motivation to attend. Why?
Perhaps part of the answer lay in the sermon that I heard, of which one part concluded that it is truly not possible to know real joy—transcendent joy—apart from Christ. The comment rather flew past me at the time. I do not think of myself as a “Christ-follower” necessarily, and yet I believe I do know joy in my life. And yes, a joy that transcends that of any given moment.
For my children, the very idea that one would even contemplate the question literally makes no sense.
My own children are living in a world that is not simply more diverse, it is fundamentally different from the world of my generation. They do not think in terms of “diversity,” they have lived it in a way older Americans never did—in their schools, their neighborhoods, the curricula they studied, in sports, in entertainment, etc.
In a world of such diversity, why is it imperative to be forced to choose “one” way to truth? Even if that one way is progressive enough not to condemn other traditions as wrong, but celebrates them as equal partners on our shared faith journey? For even the most progressive Christian traditions begin from within a tradition that for most of its history has been as exclusive as any other faith tradition.
Which brings me back to talking about what it is to be a None.
We don’t know. And that is the beauty of the journey. We are not looking for a way back into the church. If there is a faith community to allows us to grow and makes sense, terrific. But there are any number of other places that we can do this.
Holidays don’t make us uncomfortable, I suspect, because I understand others’ religious motivations this time of year and respect those. But the holidays themselves are sufficiently secularized that being religious is hardly a criteria for participating.
At the end of the day, we are simply looking for a better way of doing good in the world. Too often, as my oldest son remarks, religion is an impediment to this. So we choose to “step around it” and get on with the work at hand.
And perhaps that is what sets Nones—or the “disinterested”—apart for other anti-religious faiths. While the Nones of my generation were certainly born of the cultural context of the church, we quickly are reaching a point with younger generations that this is not the case. The movement is growing not as a reaction to anything, but rather a broader adoption of a world view that says we can do more with religion than without. If the religious would like to come along, fine. But we will not wait for you to catch up. Younger people are simply disinterested about religion and don’t loose sleep over it.
Whether one sees hope or despair in this reality depends upon your position. I see great hope—we are finally moving beyond the cultural boundaries of religion to defining a different experience. An experience that I believe is yielding a better understanding of faith and its role in our lives. Others see loss—loss of traditional patterns of belief.
This holiday season, I embrace the hope. As do many of the other Nones and Disinteresteds I know.
There is nothing new to be said about the tragedy in Connecticut. There is much to be gleaned from the religious world’s response to it, which reveals why Nones are increasingly unwilling to engage religious communities.
Let’s begin with what many already know. Shortly after the shooting, Mike Huckabee aired the position of some on the religious right that this tragedy happened because we “have removed God from schools.” The outrage was immediately rebuked by religious people left and right to differing degrees. As a result, he has tried to clarify, only muddying his already convoluted logic.
Other responses are aimed less at explaining and more at comforting. Pastors in the area wonder how so misguided a young man could have gone unnoticed by the community. Other pastors struggle with comforting the families of those who lost their children. They are honest in their confusion, if at times reaching for platitudes. As did one Lutheran minister ensuring the parents of one murdered child that he was “saved.”
Still another group has wrestled to explain where God was in the midst of all of this. Diana Butler Bass did an excellent job of outlining this in her recent blog post. She divides the answer into three: those who say God was present, those who say God was absent, and Diana’s opinion that God was hidden.
Interestingly, it is a religious voice—that of Jim Naughton—who succinctly summed up what a lot of Nones (and apparently, more than a few religious people) are feeling. Writing on his Facebook page he said “If I read one more piece of fatuous theologizing that purports to demonstrate why the writer has a more discerning intellect than those of us who think we might actually need to take certain actions to diminish gun violence in our society, I think I am going to scream.”
In a surprisingly succinct statement, Naughton cuts to the core of what is troubling many people who no longer see a need for church. When confronted with a problem—whether as egregious as Connecticut or as head-scratching as accepting an equal role for women in all of life, including the pulpit—the desire to explain what “God would do,” or to frame the problem in religious language, ultimately gets in the way of resolving the problem.
As a None, I find myself asking, is religion helping me through this situation, or simply getting in the way? Consider the reactions above.
Huckabee’s remarks are so far beyond the boundary of reasonable thought they don’t deserve comment. But Christians are spilling lots of ink and hurling lots of words doing just that. And at the end of the day, what has change?
One can be more sympathetic to those ministers who are on the ground comforting those suffering. At the very least, they are attempting to bring comfort—as much as that is possible—to those who are hurting. These people tend to be long on compassion and short on answers. In short, it is in these moments that they are most human. Which for Nones raises another question—yes, churches can offer this support, but can they offer it in a way that no other organization or individual can do? Ultimately, that question can only be answered by those affected by tragedy. For some, religion helps, for many others it only causes grief.
The final set of questions is possible the most aggravating to Nones—Where was God? Our question may well be in response, what does any of it matter? It’s the ultimate inside-baseball question. And ultimately, the answer to it is aimed not at those affected by the tragedy, but by those whose own faith depends upon some solution to this question.
For those wrestling with the Where is God question, the underlying question they are struggling with is, Is God real? Whether you take a conservative, liberal, or other tack matters little. The underlying question is there.
And this is what gets in the way for so many Nones. Why even bother to wrestle with the question at all? Does it really do anything to make the world a better place?
Increasingly, the answer for Nones is that it doesn’t matter. This is why the number of people who identify with nothing in particular continues to climb. They aren’t without belief, they just don’t see the animating questions of belief—who is God, why does God allow bad things to happen to good people—to be worth pondering.
For struggling with these questions ultimately does little good for the world at large.
It’s appropriate that from the heart of a state whose state bird is the Mockingbird–Arkansas–would come a musical group that is showing the established religious order what the new face of faith expression is becoming. And they’re not even trying.
That is the beauty of Edens Edge. A trio whose lyrics blend the Dixie Chicks‘ biting, social commentary and lilting poetry with the instrumental breadth displayed by the members of Nickel Creek–Sarah Watkins, her brother Sean Watkins, and Chris Thille who was recently awarded a MacArthur Genius grant. But whereas the Dixie Chicks have drawn the ire of many conservative religious groups, mostly for their political views, and Nickel Creek dodges religious issues all together, Edens Edge drives head-on into the religious language and imagery of 1950s Protestant America, and drives out into the brave new world of the spiritually but not religious with their traditional language in tow, if totally re-visioned.
It begins with the title of its first song on their self-named album Edens Edge, “Amen.” The chorus begins:
Can I get a Thank God Hallelujah
You finally saw what she was doing to ya
Your mama called it and she was right
Glad to see you saw the light.
The language is pure tent meeting. But the song is about a woman celebrating that a man she loved who dumped her for another finally “saw the light” and left her to stand before the woman he left.
I’m standing right here in front of you
I think I love you too
Can I get a Thank God Hallelujah
Baby do you believe it, do you?
In the hands of lesser artists–or less original–the borrowing of revival language would sound sarcastic, venal even. But Edens Edge is neither. They are speaking the language of their youth, and turning it into a song for a new generation of people who themselves have not lost belief in religious experience, but have lost faith in the traditional conveyors of that tradition–American churches.
Pushing the boundaries of religious language is not limited to the first song on the album. It extends to the final song on the album–“By Christ Alone,” a reworking of a hymn by the same name. (See Edens Edge lyrics here, and original lyrics here.) And it flows throughout the middle. In the song “Last Supper,” which artfully weds the language and practice of eucharist/communion to the story of a young couple staring at an old couple in a restaurant that is looking past one another, the young woman wonders if that will be her and her partner in time.
You break the bread and you break my heart
You raise as glass as we fall apart
Guess it’s time for a comin’ to Jesus
Looks like that just might be us
Is that all we are to each other?
Looks like it’s our last supper
And it runs through the non-religiously titled pieces like “Skinny Dipping,” which explore the Southern summer practice of shedding one’s inhibitions and going swimming au natural.
Close your eyes, uh-uh, no peeking
Are you thinking what I’m thinking
Sweet temptation in the cool blue water
Probably shouldn’t but I think we oughta
It ain’t no thing
Pretty sure it ain’t no sin
Let’s go skinny dippin’
Whereas others have been ramming this language back at the generation that clings to faith in an act resembling youthful rebellion, Edens Edge is transforming it into something new. A new way of talking about faith in an age when faith itself increasingly doesn’t matter as traditionally practiced.
In my years working with American congregations at the Alban Institute, and in my years before as a student of religion and one-time ministerial student, I watched and listened to endless conversations among the professionally religious and the church-going devout about what they’re going to do about the lack of faith in the current generation. Churches are closing, revenues are drying up, and many can imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when European style atheism trumps American congregational practice.
The solutions are variants on a theme–more programs, “hip” translations of old ideas, and getting families into church sooner to “educate” them in the faith. One can easily get the sense they’re trying too hard. The solution may well lie in the road being traveled by a trio from Arkansas who stand at Eden’s edge, and are walking away from the garden into the light of a new experience of faith.