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From the Nones, the Disinterested

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.

Amen.

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