One None

I’m still thinking about the Nones, that 20% of the population that doesn’t identify with any one religious tradition. It’s a diverse group to consider, consisting of a mix of atheists, theists, and something-in-betweenists. The spiritual-but-not-religious and the not-spiritual-nor-religious reside here, and finding common threads among this diverse group proves challenging.

NPR ran a series last week titled, “Losing our Religion” (see the bottom of this post for links to the episodes). By sharing the stories of a few handfuls of people who fall in the None category, the stories explored the variety of reasons this body is growing, how they cope with tragedy, why they leave religion (or never seek it), and how they view religion from their seats on the outside.Whether None or not, it’s worth a listen, as it’s apt to make even a None more aware of this growing part of the US population.

Before the series ran, I had done my own research. I talked to one None, a good friend willing to share why he, like 88% of Nones, isn’t looking for a church or spiritual home.  He grew up in a somewhat-observant Hindu home, attending temples with his family until he decided that he wasn’t certain about religion at all. He stepped away, asserting himself at a young age and remains an agnostic-near-atheist today who neatly fits in the None category.

Fast forward several decades, with plenty of study of science, a keen sense of compassion, and spirit of giving, and he remains a None. He’s wondered aloud why I go off to church each week, what draws me away from jammies and the paper. Generally, I stick to the same story: I find companionship on my journey through life for me and my boys, I learn from others, and I enjoy the habit and tradition of hymns, sermons, and silence.

But couldn’t you find that community at a coffeehouse on a Sunday morning? Couldn’t you share your stories in a small group, offering support to each other both in word and deed? Over a latte or even a beer, couldn’t like-minded people come together to discuss issues or a book? He’s right. This would meet my desires for companionship and common purpose, both which drive me to head to my Unitarian Universalist church each week. And for the introverted, it’s possible small groups would make meeting people more comfortable than facing a large congregation. It’s not easy for those of us who dread approaching a stranger to find a community in a church. Certainly I never managed to introduce myself to strangers at coffee hour, a time I still find loud and fatiguing, a sense only somewhat relieved when I find my sure shelter friends, some whom I’ve knowing before I attended.

Beyond the gathering itself, he questions the service itself. Why, he inquires, would I want to hear the same person week after week? What’s the point of that, what with so many points of view in the world? Most Unitarian Universalist churches do hire a minister to be their main speaker on Sunday morning. Smaller congregations and those between hired ministry rotate the duty to people within the congregation while bringing in outside speakers when possible. But as a matter of ease or simply tradition, most congregations have a minister to do the preaching.

My representative None points out the origins of this practice: ministers and priests historically served to be the authoritative figure on all things religion. With an uneducated populace, the minister was needed to read and interpret the scriptures, guiding the flock with his words and wisdom. How would that pertain to a bunch of UUs, and how could one person be an authority on those sources we claim rely upon?

It’s a fair question, one for which I don’t have an answer. It led to a discussion about the service itself. As someone who didn’t grow up going to weekly services, the practice is foreign to my None friend. And part of why I go to church is simply because I always have. It’s not a great reason, and it’s not my only one, but it’s why I searched for a church home after leaving Christianity. I missed that ritual. I missed the songs and the time to gather formally and share ritual. This all brings a look of puzzlement from my friend.

So, I asked, what would be worth taking the time to gather with a large group of people? Service, says my None. He’d be glad each week to join a group of people working on an environmental or social project.  Perhaps, he added that would be a good model for the Unitarian Universalist church. This was the original context of the conversation — would the Nones be drawn to a UU church? What, if anything, would draw the majority who say they aren’t looking for a church or spiritual home? After wandering around what isn’t appealing, the idea of regular service within a community comes forth as desirable.

More ideas followed. Rather than hiring a minister to preach each week, a church could hire a minister to organize the service that would be the mission of the church. The minister would serve as part program manager, part pastoral caregiver, bringing skills in leadership as well as compassion. On Sunday, people would gather to do work, perhaps offsite, with children old enough to work participating with the adults and younger children remaining in class, much as they do now. People could also do work at the church, focusing on tasks that don’t require being in the field. Everyone would have a hand in service. Perhaps once a month, the Sunday would be communal time, with a speaker invited in to inform, motivate, and inspire.

It’s a compelling image. It’s also far from what most UU churches do today. Most, like mine, are wed to a rather traditionally-structured Sunday morning, with congregants facing forward to listen to their minister. But if we really want to grow, we need to consider change. Perhaps Sundays filled more with service than services is a start. I’m reluctant to admit that, attached as I am to our Sunday service. And change is hard. But as I look around our meeting house on a Sunday morning, I see who is missing. Those in their late teens through early 30s. Men, especially single ones. People who are uncomfortable with or just uninterested in a generally traditional service with less focus on the divine. People who want to act now, not just once a month, but every week.

I’ve spoken in-depth to just one None. Perhaps that’s the way to start. Perhaps if we all found just one None to listen to deeply, to what would draw them to community, to church. My friend is certain there are others who share his desire to serve rather than sit, peers of his in the middle of their lives as well as those in the generations straddling his. I’d encourage each Unitarian Universalist to seek out a None and engage him or her in this discussion. Listen with an open mind to criticisms of our current model, ideas about a more appealing model, and the needs that rest behind both. Then go back to your congregations, and when the discussion turns to growth, share what you’ve found.

On Losing Our Religion (NPR, January 14-18, 2013)

Rational and Reverent

 I’ve written about the Nones (And Then There Were Nones), or religiously unaffiliated. With almost 20% of Americans fitting this description (and the majority of them socially liberal), is it any wonder that the Unitarian Universalists would consider how to attract these folks? Add that we’re a shrinking community (Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs), and it’s easy to see why all those unaffiliated people might seem like ready converts to Unitarian Universalism.

IMG_0144Can the rational and the reverent co-exist? A recent sermon about the Nones set me thinking about the relationship between the rational and the reverent, mindsets that at first glance seem to be in opposition. The sermon, Watering Down the Wine, by Rev. Alex Riegel,  focused on this population of the religiously unaffiliated and played with the idea that we could attract some of these people to our fold if we changed our language and mindset. True, we have a relevant and rational message of compassion and inclusivity that likely does appeal to many of those Nones (as well as liberals happily ensconced in their own faith traditions). But there are barriers. According to the Pew study, 88% aren’t looking for a church. Why they aren’t isn’t covered in the study, but I’d imagine it’s a mixture of feeling wounded from previous church experience, feeling no need to collect on a Sunday morning in a traditional setting, and a preference for Sunday morning in jammies with the paper and a cup of coffee.

We have coffee, and jammies would likely be fine with most congregations, but for the most part, we’re still all church, and rather traditional church at that.  And wounded? Some, but not all. Many have simply decided that they don’t believe what they were brought up to believe. They’ve embraced the rational, what can be thought and touched and turned around in the mind. Others, like me, arrive seeking, questioning the beliefs of youth or just wondering what is out there. Or wondering what isn’t. Either way, we’re theoretically in it together for “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” (4th principle, for those keeping track).

So here we are, built around the idea that the search is the real work of life. That said, I’m not sure how many UUs are actively seeking spiritual answers. We’re a rational bunch, sometimes ruthlessly, stubbornly rational.  Rational thinkers, wounded or not, make up the majority of those in the pews of a UU church, with spirituality and spiritual language largely abandoned or faced with skepticism. In his sermon, Alex suggested relaxing that tight rationality and considering adding some reverence. And he suggested re-thinking opposition to God, or at least to the traditional God. Replace some of the rational with the reverent, seemed to be the call.

I’m deeply rational. I’m also an agnostic who readily admits that I just don’t know the answers and am okay with not knowing. There is so much unknown in the universe, after all, and truths about it we take for granted today were the stuff of fantasy just a generation (or even a decade) back. I just don’t know, and that’s okay with me. I’ve long given up the “easy God” of James Kavanaugh, scholar, poet, and once-Catholic priest. I’m not bitter about the time spent with that comfort but not drawn back to it either. That’s the rational end of me at work. It’s the same part that doesn’t refer to being blessed and will commit to holding someone in my thoughts but not to praying for them. That rationality runs deep and strong, and it’s not wont to be pushed aside.

I don’t think that my rationality gets in the way of my reverence. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of me in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence, and the catch in my throat that comes is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless and trusts us to figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my dear friend’s eyes and am reminded that love is not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear but is fully available again and again.

It is reverence I feel when I sit on Sunday morning in a room of other people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same.

The rational may be the easy part for many of us, but the reverence is what keeps the rational from running losing our heart, reduced to reason only. The rational and the reverent balance each other, the latter reminding us that despite all we know, we don’t yet understand it all yet.  Our rational mind wonders and weighs, while our reverent mind celebrates the mystery, respecting what has been wondered and weighed and what remains unknown. It is the act of being reverent of the child, the community, the beloved, the stars, and humanity while understanding the rational underpinnings of it all that makes us more fully human than with either sentiment alone.

Rational and reverent. The Unitarian Universalist church appreciates both. This may not be obvious in our services and social time, with the rational language for more comfortable for most of us. So perhaps Alex is right. Perhaps we need to find the language of reverence to temper the rational. While that may be spiritual language, I don’t think it has to be. Perhaps more regular talk about awe and amazement, respect and appreciation, will bring us closer to expressing what we are more likely to note in the quiet of our hearts. Rational and relevant. Truth and meaning. This is the stuff of Unitarian Universalism.


And Then There Were Nones

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.