What we can learn from our non-religious neighbors

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on August 7, 2014.

For the past few years, America has been experiencing a trend dubbed “the rise of the Nones.” According to the Pew Research Center, one-fifth of the U.S. public, and one-third of adults under 30, are religiously unaffiliated, including agnostics, atheists and those who refuse any label at all.

Despite this rise in numbers, there remains a great deal of intolerance and distrust between religious and non-religious groups. However, in order to promote understanding across our community, interfaith dialogue needs to expand beyond the faith groups and include all worldviews that have a perspective to share. That is why Nones should be welcomed into our movement toward understanding and acceptance.


As suggested by the statistics, Nones are becoming a larger part of our national religious and cultural makeup every year. In the last five years alone, the number of Nones rose from 15 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population, Pew surveys show. We must embrace their perspectives into our conversations. If we do not, we risk furthering division between religious and non-religious communities in the future.

Furthermore, just like many a religious group, numerous negative stereotypes exist against the non-religious. Atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris are assumed to represent the larger group, and being non-religious is wrongly equated with actively opposing religion. However, secular traditions have significant diversity within the identity group, and these stereotypes lead to misunderstanding and discrimination against all who identify that way.

In order to understand this growing community, and to prevent these harmful stereotypes, interfaith dialogues should welcome these perspectives. In doing so, we will discover the potential richness of non-religious traditions. But how do we make the first step?


In order to embrace our secular, atheist, agnostic, and non-religious neighbors into dialogue, we must begin to define the Nones not by the beliefs or identities that they lack, but instead define them by the fullness of what they do value and believe in.

In a new weekly column from On Being written by author Courtney E. Martin, “They Call Us the Nones, But We’re So Much More,” Martin writes that secular people offer new ways to view the “burden and joy of trying to understand how to be a good human.” By welcoming non-religious citizens into interfaith dialogue, we will discover how these traditions find values of compassion, humility, service, community, and ultimately, find meaning in life.

Interfaith work is all about using diversity in identity and context to teach us about the essential unity of humanity. It is about people coming together not to agree, but to respect, and hopefully learn from one another. The end goal is that this will permeate into all other aspects of society and culture. But in order for that to happen, all people – regardless of faith or non-faith background – must be included in the conversation.