In a recent rebroadcast of an interview between journalist Krista Tippett and poet Christian Wiman on Tippett’s OnBeing program on NPR radio, Wiman made a comment that really called me up short. “I think that God calls some people to unbelief so that faith can take new forms.” He and Tippett were discussing Wiman’s own journey from a childhood faith, through a period of agnosticism/atheism and a return in his late 30s to a Christian religious faith. But the idea that God calls some people to unbelief so that the faith of believers may take new forms got me thinking!!
The “beliefs” and “faith” of an increasingly large group of the American population, those dubbed the “nones” meaning people who claim no religious affiliation and/or who consider themselves atheist/agnostic or spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR), have been the subject of lively conversation recently as the Pew Forum released its most recent study of religious life in America in which the statistics show that fully 20% of the American population today falls into the category of “no religious affiliation” or “none.” Among those under age 30 the percentage is even higher – fully 30% of that age group. Christian churches, both mainline and Evangelical, are struggling to make sense of this data and trying to figure out what it means for their very existence, as church participation continues its precipitous decline. The Pew Forum research shows that of those “nones”, fully 88% of them are not even seeking to affiliate with an established religious denomination or religion. Certainly in the Christian context, for those who seek to know what it will take to “grow the church” these statistics are not encouraging.
While participation in established religious traditions and their rituals is on the decline the statistics also suggest that the American public is not uninterested in the issues and concerns that have typically been dubbed the purview of religion. Issues of human purpose, existential questions about meaning, about suffering, about the quest for emotional, spiritual and physical wholeness and healing, about the role and place of humans in the universe, are burning questions for lots of people. The sad truth is many of them have not found traditional religious communities to be places where such questions are deeply considered. They have often found that their own quest for understanding and exploration of those Big Questions is not affirmed in traditional religious settings either. Among the nones fully 70% think religious groups are too concerned with money and power and 67% say they are too focused on rules.
The other fascinating finding in this study is that among the nones there is a significant percentage of folks who pray regularly and engage in other spiritual practices, such as meditation, yoga, spiritual reading and other traditionally spiritual practices. The nones do not categorically eschew religious rituals or practices. Indeed, they recognize and yearn for such rituals, but again, do not find the traditional places of religious worship meeting their particular needs for such rituals in their own lives.
In the world of interreligious dialogue, the nones have been seeking a place at the table for a number of years. Atheist/agnostic/ SBNR groups have been actively a part of interreligious conferences, including the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2009. Colleges are beginning to discover that Secular Student Alliances and Atheist/Agnostic groups seek to be part of college chaplaincy activities, with Harvard University going so far as appointing an Atheist/Humanist chaplain. The voices of the nones are being heard at interfaith dialogue tables and their presence is to be applauded because they are not afraid to ask the hard questions and to push the affiliated participants to deep thinking and clear articulation of their long held religious beliefs and assumptions. Indeed, in Krista Tippett’s interview with Christian Wiman, Wiman recalled that Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented that he enjoyed engaging in dialogue with atheists because of the questions they ask of religion.
Religious people have a tendency, if they invite the nones to the dialogue table, to think of themselves as the purveyors of wisdom to these unaffiliated persons. Secretly, many religious people also hope to convince the nones that their religious tradition does have something valuable to offer and hope to see those folks join a religious tradition. I think its time we in the religious traditions look to the nones as sources of wisdom in their own right, and engage in dialogue with them, not in the hopes of winning them over to religion, or back to religion, but in order that our faith might take new and invigorating forms.
Perhaps the increased presence of the nones in our culture and their willingness to engage in dialogue with us is God’s way of moving us towards new and revitalized forms of faith. Perhaps their willingness to engage our secular culture without trying to demonize it is an invitation to all of us within religious traditions to embrace our culture, including literature, the humanities, science, the social sciences, psychology and other disciplines, not to mention the arts and even popular culture, in new ways and with enthusiasm for how those voices may contribute to new forms of professing and living our faith. Perhaps the challenges that the nones lob at people of religious faith can become opportunities for us to dig deeper into our religious traditions to develop thoughtful and nuanced responses that take seriously the challenges raised by those with no commitment to a particular tradition. Douglas John Hall, Reformed theologian from Canada, speaking about the struggles in contemporary Protestant contexts says it well:
[T]he gift of a future will have to be met by a new, cheerful, and disciplined readiness on the part of Christian individuals, congregations, and “churches” to take responsibility for its implementation. That is, the church will have to become the ‘disciple community’ all over again, and in great earnestness.
And for churches in the United States and Canada, it seems to me, that means one thing in particular: they will have to seek to deepen. And they will only deepen if they are ready to become communities of theological struggle, contemplation and dialogue. …Thought is of the essence of the cross that North American Christians today are called to pick up and carry!
The call to deepen the discussion and engage in thoughtful dialogue sounds clearly from the nones and is a call that we who profess religious faith should take seriously. Interreligious dialogue must include the voices of the nones/SBNR/atheist/agnostic thinkers for the sake of the religious people at the table. The rise of the nones on the American religious landscape may be just the catalyst many of our communities need to develop new and creative forms of faith.
 Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 264.