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“Head”-ing Down the Wrong Path



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.

The Rise of the Nones

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?

Honest Discussion

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.




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