The New York Times reported “Percentage of Protestant Americans is in Deep Decline.” The Washington Post’s take was different: “One in five Americans reports no religious affiliation.” USA Today worded it this way: “The emerging social, political force: ‘Nones.” And Maine’s Morning Sentinel reported it this way: “Study: Maine still one of the least religious states.” The Pew Research Center of The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recent report on the U.S. attitudes towards religion hit the news circuit last week, albeit with a variety of focuses.
While I imagine it was lamented in many churches, I found it a bit of a relief. I’m not alone. Actually, since I identify myself as a Unitarian Universalist, I don’t actually qualify as part of the 19.6% of those claiming no religious affiliation, since I identify myself as a Unitarian Universalist. (UUs can be found under the heading Other Faiths (1.2%), then under Unitarian and other liberal faiths (0.7%), with 0.3% of those surveyed claiming that title.) That’s a mighty small group that’s been shrinking over time, so it’s nice to feel the company of the larger group of folks who sit outside the boundaries of Christianity (73% call themselves Christian in this 2012 study).
Only 29% of the Unaffiliated Americans call themselves Atheist or Agnostic with the rest being “nothing in particular,” thus the moniker “Nones.” I can’t say I feel any affection for the term, although I suppose it’s a bit snappier than “Unaffiliated.” This is not a homogenous group when it comes to religious belief, either. While more lean left than right, they are a hard group to pin down. What this growing group does share is a lack of desire to sit in a place of worship on a Sunday (or any other day): 88% aren’t looking for a particular religion. This pool of Nones, it seems, aren’t ripe for the pews of even a Unitarian Universalist church. Why is left to wonder.
What I wonder is a bit different. I wonder what draws some nonbelievers (those atheists and agnostics who aren’t Nones), to church each Sunday. A nonbelieving friend of mine asks me often what draws me to my church, given there certainly is no threat of hell for not going and that it does involve getting dressed and moving on a Sunday morning. I’ve answered that question in enough different ways that I’m sure he wonders if I’m just shooting into the dark, hoping to hit the “right” answer by luck.
There might be something to that. Or perhaps my reasons keep changing.
Seven or eight years ago, I became a None. I’d left theism and wandered feeling somewhat lost, part of the 10% of Nones seeking a spiritual home or like-minded community. When I found my Unitarian Universalist church, I’d managed to shove some ritual and routine into the gaping hole that resulted from leaving church. At that point the hole from leaving a belief in God was not the problem. It was the hole of habit that loomed largest at Christmas and Easter, times when community with hymns, sermons, times of quiet, and community were what I’d always experienced. My UU church filled that hole, and, for a while, that’s all I needed.
Eventually, those holes started to close. As more of the trappings of my Christianity fell away and became further from my present moment, the need for those trappings faded. At some point, I was no longer at church for ritual and routine. I was there to discover something new. Perhaps at this point I was thirsting for something greater than myself. Deep into a failed marriage and climbing out of a painful divorce, the loss of God as comfort and purpose was smarting. Not that I had any remaining belief in an omniscient omnipotent creator being, but I was missing the something beyond myself. Whether that was something to love, something to cry to, something to rant to, or something just to quell the fear and loneliness that threatened during those years, I don’t know. I was drawn to find a practice, and tried a host of meditative practices, including prayer beads without prayer, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and chant. Each one informed my search for meaning and my understanding about myself. None of them stayed with me, at least in their entirety, but through each I grew a bit more comfortable in my godless life and my own skin.
Sometime recently, I stopped my spiritual search. My lack of belief in God and the supernatural and corresponding appreciation of the strength and beauty of reason, as well as increasing wonder of the natural world and the beings in it brought me to a stillness. I’d not quite call it peace. I’m still separating emotionally from spirituality, and there is a tender spot that remains where belief once reigned. But at this point, it’s gone. I’m no longer attending my UU church as a spiritual seeker.
So why am I there? I’ve immersed myself into church life — teaching RE, running a book table, sitting on committees, attending meetings. We rarely miss a Sunday, a dedication I generally attribute duty to my children’s social needs and religious education. It’s more than that, however. I go now for community. This is my tribe. This group of potential Nones who instead decide to wake and dress on (most) Sunday mornings with no threat of hell nor promise of eternal reward. These sometimes profound, sometimes pedantic, always opinionated and passionate people in various stages of belief in God, science, humanity, the universe, and more. With these people I want to share joy and sorrow. With these people I want to stumble through life with more compassion and love than I did the week before. With these people I want to raise my children to think freely about what is important, what is true, and what is right. With these people I’m willing to struggle through the hard parts, sit through long meetings, and worry about growth and finances that stretch beyond my own walls. I’m in deep.
I’m five years from being one of the Nones — five years in a Unitarian Universalist community that feeds me, teaches me, listens to me, cares for me, and sometimes drives me mad. It’s the right place for me today, a previous None who is know comfortably tucked three levels into the list of religions on the Pew study. I don’t know where I’ll be in five years, in either church or belief. I may stay put or perhaps return to the pool of Nones. I might even find myself in some other tiny branch on the tree of religiosity and spirituality. But for now, here I sit, surrounded by my community of fellow travelers.