Engaging Nones in the Interfaith Movement

Reposted from Interfaith Ramadan | July 3, 2015
I could start this blog in the way that most interfaith dialogues begin, by declaring my identity and assigning myself to a particular tradition. But I truly do not know what I would say, and anyone who has been in an interfaith dialogue setting with me knows how much I ramble when I’m asked to identify myself. That’s because I’m what many people refer to as a “None” – that sweeping category which includes everyone from atheists and agnostics, to “spiritual but not religious,” to those who believe in a higher power but do not ascribe to any particular belief-system. Basically, it is anyone who checks the “other” box when asked what religion they are.
The term originated with Pew Research Study’s “’Nones’ on the Rise,” which showed – first in 2012 and again just a few months ago – that the number of non-affiliated individuals are increasing in America, particularly in the Millennial generation. This trend shows that 23 percent of the US adult population and 35 percent of Millennials fall within the None umbrella. In fact, as of the most recent poll, Nones have become the second largest group in the US, passing Catholics and right behind Evangelical Protestants.
So who are the Nones? For me, being a None is just the beginning of the conversation – and an opportunity for me to say one of my most repeated lines: “I’m a ‘None,’ but I’m so much more.”
That phrasing is taken from one of my favorite Nones, a writer, activist and regular contributor to the On Being blog, Courtney E. Martin. She goes on to describe herself as “someone who doesn’t affiliate with one religion but affiliates with the burden and joy of trying to understand how to be a good human.” (Read the article here.)
For me, this burden and joy of understanding myself and my relationship to humanity and the world around me comes from so many places. First, it’s rooted in my Catholic upbringing and recent discovery of progressive Catholic social teaching. It also comes from 10 years of identifying explicitly as an atheist, inspired by Carl Sagan’s humbling connection to the awe-inspiring night sky. Another inspiration I find is in mysticism, which Pico Iyer describes as, “the place where all great traditions converge…[a place] where distinctions dissolve.” It also comes from humanists, who range from philosophers to activists. Finally, my understanding is continually challenged and enriched from my friends in the interfaith movement, who wrestle with complex identities themselves, and have led me to experience “holy envy” toward every tradition I have encountered.
So, while Nones, like atheists and agnostics, are too often defined by what they are not or what they are seemingly lacking, it is our role in the interfaith movement to ask them instead what they aredefined by, and not by what they are missing but instead by what enriches their lives.
This piece will explore four ideas that interfaith activists can do to include and engage authentically with the many Nones in our communities.
  1. Understand why Nones are not affiliating with institutionalized religion
It is essential to look at the context in which many people, particularly Millennials, are becoming unaffiliated. There are various reasons that are tradition and culture specific – the moral scandals of the Church, the conservative values that exclude one’s LGBTQ neighbors, and more. While these are important, there are two other reasons that have spoken most true to my experience.
First, it’s a lot to ask of a twenty-something, who may be just beginning a journey of contemplating life’s big questions, to understand definitively who they are and who they want to become. Asking someone to put themselves into categories for the sake of dialogue might be a clarifying experience for some, but a confusing experience for others. I know as I entered into the interfaith world as a professional rather than a student, I often heard that an individual’s interfaith leadership is rooted in their identity and their tradition. Hearing that as someone who is so spiritually young, I grew nervous – where are my roots? Where do I get my values? Do I need to figure this out before I can be effective in my work? Leaving space for a person to explore and seek can be more spiritually healthy in the long run.
Another idea I find particularly useful comes from a conversation between Nathan Schneider, Millennial/Catholic/Activist, and Krista Tippett, host of On Being. In their interview at the Chautauqua Institute, they discuss the growth of Nones as a response to the over-institutionalization of religion, and a recognition by people leaving that religious institutions are not living up to the values that they promote. This skepticism of organized religion has led many to define themselves as non-religious yet when one digs deeper, they see not a lazy denial, but a thoughtful refusal.
  1. Use clear, inclusive language
In my work in universities, one of the most commonly asked questions is whether or not non-religious people are allowed to be a part of interfaith events. While the answer to me is an obvious yes, I realize that the word “interfaith” makes it seem like someone has to have a faith claim in order to participate. If we don’t explicitly state on event posters or in our mission that absolutely everyone is welcome, many non-religious people will not know they are welcome and will likely not join. Some examples of commonly used inclusive language are “faiths and non-faiths,” “religious and secular,” and “religious and philosophical traditions.”
  1. Define us by what we are, not by what we aren’t
Over the last year, I’ve noticed that when asking college students to begin a dialogue by saying what tradition they come from, many are intimidated and uncertain. Most often, we heard things like, “Well, I grew up ___, but now I’m more ___,” or even just simply, “I don’t really know.”
So what if we reimaged that first step of an interfaith dialogue? Recognizing that generationally, young people are less likely to affiliate with one tradition exclusively or definitively, let’s ask a different question. With an aversion to claim one particular identity group, a more inclusive understanding of oneself comes from something that transcends traditions – our values.
Instead of asking “what do you identify as?” what if we asked, “what values do you identify with, and why?” This still gets to the heart of what interfaith dialogue is about: relationship-building through finding common values from distinct backgrounds. Further, it does so in a way that allows people who are non-religious to identify themselves by values they hold rather than beliefs or traditions they lack.
  1. View this as an opportunity to enrich the dialogue
As we’ve entered into an inter-generational and interfaith dialogue in my community, I have seen some people become hesitant to include younger voices and perspectives that might not be rooted in a religion. Sometimes, bringing Nones into dialogue can be viewed as threatening to the purity of a dialogue centered on belief in a higher power or divine being. However, in my own experience, I have seen much richer dialogue and more meaningful coalition-building come out of conversations with these more complex and messy understandings of identity. By opening up the possibility of continual learning and internal transformation, and by providing intentional space for that to occur, we open ourselves to the complexity and richness of humanity. To maintain a dialogue with only those who have clear faith inspirations is to over-simplify the diverse voices in our community.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite inter-religious advocates, Catholic priest and scholar, Raimon Panikkar. Born to a Hindu-Indian father and a Catholic-Spanish mother, his theory of pluralism is one that does not water down diversity, but embraces the complexity of it. He explains that the particular names ascribed to this great mystery are not just different labels, but that “each authentic name enriches and qualifies that Mystery which is neither purely transcendent nor purely immanent.” In other words, pluralism, and thus interfaith work, has a “vigilant openness to the mystery of reality…[which] aims not at some kind of live and let live tolerance among different perspectives, but instead at a dynamic religious interaction.”
This dynamic interaction across lines of difference has the potential to enrich all of our lives, our beliefs, our values, and our relationships with others. But we won’t realize that transformative power unless is authentically engaged in the dialogue.

What Charleston teaches us about community and belonging

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on July 2, 2015.

Last Wednesday, one week after the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which an act of racial hatred took the lives of nine congregation members, Grand Rapids gathered in Rosa Parks Circle to reflect, heal, and call on our community to promote a future with less racial violence and more justice for all. 

Hosted by First Community A.M.E. Church, St. Luke A.M.E. Zion Church, the City of Grand Rapids and Kent County, the evening drew ecumenical and political leaders. Speakers ranged from Mayor George Heartwell to an 18-year-old pastor. In the crowd were Catholic sisters from the Dominican Center, some people from the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America, and ministers from several local congregations. 

The tone of the service was one of deep sadness, but also one of joyful hope. Collectively, we mourned loss, not just from this shooting but all racially motivated incidents in our nation. However, we also celebrated what is possible when people across lines of difference can come together into community.  

To the crowd of a few hundred people, the Rev. Gaylyn Wilson, pastor of St. Luke A.M.E. Zion Church, opened up the evening by proposing, “We are here because we believe if we dialogue together, worship together, sit and have lunch together, then things will start to change.”

Just two days later, on Friday, June 26, President Obama delivered the eulogy of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel A.M.E. Church and one of the nine shooting victims. In the eulogy, Obama spoke of the legacy of the A.M.E. tradition, which is known for being a symbol of the struggle toward freedom and equality for all; in his words, the A.M.E. church is important “not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country.” 

This falls in line with Rev. Clementa’s own philosophy of a “faith in action,” where the church’s calling was “not just within the walls of the congregation, but … the life and community in which our congregation resides.” Rev. Clementa believed that being a person of faith is about more than individual salvation; rather, “it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.”

The shooting in Charleston and the dialogues that have transpired since call us to heed lessons from Rev. Clementa, as well as our local community’s belief that we must live out our values in a way that promotes the common good for all. Beyond that, these tragic events have also called us into community and belonging, not just with those we consider to be similar to ourselves, but with everyone, even and especially those who may appear different. 

john a. powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, says: “[A]s we deny the other, we deny ourselves. There is no ‘other.’ We are connected.” 

Although the labels we use – self and other, black and white, religious and secular, Republican and Democrat, gay and straight – create a veil of irreconcilable difference, through dialogue we see commonality. The challenge becomes recognizing and celebrating our unique identities and shared humanity in a way that leads to real, positive change for all.