Interview: Becoming Truly Human director Nathan Jacobs on being “none of the above” and giving the religiously unaffiliated a chance to be heard

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The fastest-growing religious group in North America may be the group that claims no religious affiliation whatsoever. Up to one in four people now say “None of the above” when asked if they belong to one of the traditional religions. But, precisely because so-called “Nones” do not identify with a religious community, they don’t often find opportunities to talk about what they believe, and what they don’t believe.

Kentucky-based filmmaker Nathan Jacobs tries to remedy that somewhat in Becoming Truly Human, a documentary (opening August 22) that profiles several Nones — individually and as a group — who cover the spectrum from those who have no religion at all to those who broadened their definition of religion beyond the narrow parameters of their upbringing. Along the way, Jacobs tells his own story as a None who eventually moved beyond None-ness.

I had a chance to speak to Jacobs by phone. What follows below — after the movie clip — is a lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Jacobs.

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The press release for this film, and some of the promotion around it, focuses on the Nones, how the film looks at the Nones – and we’re not talking about N-U-N-S, of course –

Jacobs: Right!

— but there’s also your own story, which is woven throughout the film, and right at the beginning, the opening company credits include Ancient Faith Films and 5 Sees Films, which are Orthodox companies. So is this a film about Nones? Is it a film about Orthodoxy? Is it a film about both? How would you characterize that?

Jacobs: I would characterize it as a film about Nones, and even my own story — it ultimately ends up in Eastern Orthodoxy — I still see my journey in there as a journey of a None. So if you track the parallels between my story and the other Nones, mine parallels theirs for 75% of it. It is a journey with all the steps along the way that they have, in terms of having some kind of a religious upbringing, some kind of disillusionment, a moving away, an exploration of spirituality outside of organized religion, and it’s only sort of down that road that I eventually end up pulling on a thread that leads me to Eastern Orthodoxy ultimately.

I think how I see my story relating to the Nones in this film really is that what my story raises implicitly is the question of: Just because a person is a None and they’ve walked away from religion, does that mean they are in perpetuity religiously unaffiliated, or does it mean that they’ve simply walked away from religion in a specific way in which they have experienced it? And from everything I’ve found in interviewing Nones and of course looking at my own experience as a former None, that’s what I’ve tended to find, is that when they say they are unaffiliated with religion, what they really mean, is “I was raised Baptist and I don’t believe that any more,” or “I was raised Catholic and I don’t believe that any more.”

In my case I was raised Lutheran, and I don’t believe that any more. And that tends to be what they mean: they have a very narrow sense in which they are saying they are religiously unaffiliated. Many of them, in their stories, when they talk about moving away from religion, that movement is— For example, Kristen, the African-American gal who you see in the trailer, it was actually reading about other world religions that moved her away from her Christian upbringing. So it wasn’t as if religion, full stop, didn’t appeal to her. It was actually that other non-Christian ideas started to appeal to her, and that’s what moved her away from Christianity in the very narrow sense in which she experienced it. And there’s something very similar about that with me. I moved away from a very specific form of western Christianity but still embraced the God of the philosophers, and had sort of created this syncretistic philosophical secular religion — as I called it, becoming religious without religion — and only later started finding kindred spirits in eastern Christianity.

So I suppose that would be the bottom line, because in my own story, I think I was asking big questions, and I don’t think that I was “lost” or something like that just because I walked away from Lutheranism. And that’s really what the film is raising. Just because they’re religiously unaffiliated and they’ve walked away from that specific religious upbringing, does that mean that their journey is over and they’re Nones in perpetuity? Or does it mean that they’re merely searching for something that does resonate with them, and right now that’s outside of religion?

One of the questions that comes up whenever one of these surveys comes out and they say a large percentage of the population identifies as “none of the above”, you sometimes see atheists point to that as evidence of how their numbers are increasing, but in many cases it’s been said that it might be more accurate to say that these people are non-denominational, they haven’t abandoned a form of theism necessarily but it’s become sort of harder to define for them.

Jacobs: Right. We screened probably upwards of fifty Nones in preparation for the film, before we selected our group, so we have a sense of the spectrum, and our screening of the Nones did show us just that. Very few of the folks we screened were self-identified atheists. That was a very small percentage of the Nones that we found. I would say the largest percentage leans toward agnostic, but even those who say they are agnostic lean theist in the sense that they believe in a higher power, they’re just not sure if it’s an anthropomorphic deity, they don’t feel a need to put a name on that, or whatever it may be. And so in my case, the case of Basil [the name Jacobs goes by in the film], my story was I was a philosophical pantheist, so in our surveys we had people who were theists, they lean toward “I do believe in God,” or explicitly “I believe in God,” they were sort of agnostic with theistic leanings, and some of them are pantheists, and some of them are atheists, but I would say in our screening of about fifty Nones, only about two were explicitly self-identified atheists.

Did either of those two make it into your final group? I’m guessing at least one of them did.

Jacobs: Joshua.

Joshua, right, that’s what I thought. Because he’s the one who said he was looking for “a measurable God.”

Jacobs: That’s right. He likes measuring molecules, that’s what he does for his job, so he wanted a God for whom he could do the same.

I was going to ask how you found these people. You say you screened fifty people, where did you find them all? From a certain group? From across the country?

Jacobs: We’re working with groups from all over, so one of the distribution entities is in L.A., one of our advertising entities is in Nashville, one of the post houses we worked with is in Vancouver, but I myself am actually based in Kentucky. So since we knew we were going to be shooting there, we had a criterion where we knew, given the limitations of our budget, we could only really address people who were within a reasonable driving distance. And so that wasn’t necessarily limited to Kentucky — Laura, for example, is from Cincinnati — but we did try to limit the scope of who we were surveying, given the limitations of our operating budget.

But I would say the person who deserves the most credit for finding the Nones would be Josh Lourie, who is our associate producer on the film. Josh would basically just go out and he would go anyplace where he could find people and start randomly talking to them. So for example, there’s an open mic night at the bar, he’d go up and announce, “Hey, I’m a film producer and we’re working on this film and it’s about Nones, the religiously unaffiliated, and here’s what the group is and here’s the stats and if you hear that and you think you fit into that group, I’ll be sitting over there at that table, come talk to me.” And basically Josh would do things like that.

It wasn’t limited to any one location. It was anything from open mic nights to parties to bars to word of mouth, going to people and saying, “Hey, would you know any Nones?” And I think we may have even had a Craigslist ad or something. It wasn’t any particular way we found them.

I’m slightly intrigued or amused when you say you would ask people, “Hey, do you know any Nones?” Did that word have to be explained to people?

Jacobs: Yeah, normally it has to be explained several times, actually. I was familiar with the experience in some of these greetings where I’d say, “We’re doing a film on Nones. Now that’s not N-U-N, it’s N-O-N-E, None,” and then I would explain the term, and they’re nodding, “Okay, okay, I got it,” and then as I get into talking about the film, they’re like, “So nuns are walking away from religion, huh?” And I’d say, “Now hold on, are you going back to Catholic nuns or something like that?” So we’d go back to the term and explain it because it wouldn’t always stick the first time.

Given the very undefined nature of belief for people in this category, what was it like getting them to sit down and essentially commit to the record what their thoughts are right now? I think Tiffany in particular says she doesn’t know where she’ll be in a couple years. So was there any trepidation about saying anything now, knowing that in five years they could see this film and say, “Oh, but that’s not me any more”?

Jacobs: Well, that’s what I expected, that there probably would be a general hesitation to talk, that they’d sort of have their guard up. But what I actually found — surprisingly, to me — was the exact opposite. I found that they were very open to talking, and that as I asked questions, because all along, I never divulged what my religious beliefs are, if any. I always just treated them as an interviewer or as the director on this project — “Don’t worry about what I think” — and I just asked them questions, and they’re similar sort of questions to what you see in the film: Did you have any kind of religious upbringing? What were your parents like? Were both of your parents religous? Etc., etc. Those are the sorts of things that would come up. And they just really opened up right away.

And what I found most surprising was that the Nones — and I guess this just didn’t occur to me until we were working on pre-production — but the Nones, as people who have walked away from religion, typically don’t have any outlet for talking about religion, so folks who maybe go to church, it’s normal for them, they go to church, they hear a preacher talk about God, they maybe go to coffee hour and a theological topic comes up, people ask what you’re reading, they have these conversations all the time. The Nones, having walked away from that, typically — from our screening of them — don’t have anybody to talk to about this. They believe these things, they don’t say them out loud, they don’t hear other people say them out loud, it’s just not something they discuss.

In fact, just to give you a sense of how extreme that can get, one couple that we interviewed — and I really loved them and wanted to cast them for the film, but there was a scheduling conflict and we couldn’t work it out — but they’ve been married for three years, and had never once discussed whether they believed in God, and so, sitting with me interviewing them was the first time they had heard what the other person thought about that topic, and they discovered in that discussion that one leans heavily atheist — she was the other one who was an explicit atheist — but the other one leans heavily theist, and they didn’t even know that about each other until I was asking them questions! And they were shocked! Who is this person I’m married to? They had no idea.

And I also found that many of the Nones that I interviewed, just because they identify as no longer religiously affiliated, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily comfortable with that. A lot of them almost wanted me to engage them. I mean, I was really clear, “I’m not here to argue with you or debate you or try to persuade you of anything, I’m just interviewing you.” And some of them really started to say, “If you have something to offer me, if you can persuade me of something other than what I currently believe, please do. I’m not comfortable with where I am, it’s just where I am.” And I often found that once we had the initial cut of the film, and we showed snippets to other Nones, I found that some Nones found it a very emotional experience to hear someone say out loud things that they think that they never get to say.

So that was something that was most surprising for me, was to realize that Nones aren’t an outspoken regularly dialoguing group, in fact this is very internal, very personal, and rarely — because of their disassociation from religion — rarely do they have an opportunity to talk about this.

So basically they don’t have that community outlet that people of a more religious bent would have.

Jacobs: That’s right. And in many of the cases, as you see in the interviews, for whatever reason they walked away with either the impression that asking hard impressions is not welcome or that there aren’t really any good answers to their questions and they just stopped asking. So, who else are they going to go to, then, at that point?

Just backing up a bit: Did you say that when you spoke to them or interviewed them, you didn’t reveal your own story to them yet? I assume the people you profile in the film have seen the film by now–

Jacobs: Actually, they have not.

Oh really!

Jacobs: I’m showing it to them tomorrow. It’s the first time they’ll see the entire movie. So I wish I had that information for you, but not until tomorrow. But here’s what I told them: I did tell them the structure of the film. I explained that in this film, three things are going to be woven throughout: there’s these individual stories, which are your stories; there’s these group discussions, where we show the spectrum of all the Nones by allowing you to interact with and disagree with each other; and then there’s also a third story of a None who ultimately ends up in Eastern Orthodoxy. So I told them all of that, and I laid out what the intent of the film was, but I did not tell them that I was the third story. So they know that there’s one in there, but they didn’t know who it was. Now, the fact that they’ve all seen the opening four minutes of the film — I presume they now know that that’s me. But during filming, they didn’t know. They didn’t know if I was a None or an atheist or a theist or a Christian or a Muslim, they had no idea.

I was going to ask what kind of reaction they had to the film. Have they reacted to the first four minutes at all, to your knowledge?

Jacobs: They have. Their reaction to the first four minutes is very enthusiastic. I have shown the entire film to a lot of different people: religious folks, Nones, it’s just that that group of Nones I was trying to get together all at one time, and that’s tomorrow. But their reaction to the first four minutes has been very positive, very enthusiastic, they think it looks beautiful, and they’ve had these sorts of emotional reactions, like it’s just really powerful to hear people say out loud the things I’ve thought but you never say.

Also, a lot of them tend to immediately react and say, “Man, that’s something that my friend always says,” so they tend to start to latch hold of some of the soundbites, so to speak, and say that “that person represents me”. “This person who said that, they’re so much like this other person I know.” And so there is this tendency to self-identify with [the interviewees], and that’s been part of the reaction. But I’ll be very curious to see their reaction to the whole.

I have seen other Nones react to the film as a whole, and their reaction has been very positive, including one of the Nones — this one couple that I watched it with — they thought it was the best thing they’ve ever seen on religion, and everyone should watch it. So that was a very encouraging reaction. I don’t know if all the Nones will react that way, but the responses from the Nones have been positive. I would say the most negative responses to the film — which are not that many, I’d say about 90 percent of the viewers we’ve screened it with have been positive — but the most negative reactions have probably been from Christians who have seen it.

What kind of reactions are you getting from them?

Jacobs: Usually one of the things I find — and it always disheartens me to share this, but again, I would say that this is a smaller percentage — there’s sort of this ten percent who in many ways start to articulate the sorts of reactions to the Nones that the Nones themselves articulate having experienced growing up, that moved them toward None-ery. So there are people who say, “I don’t understand why they’re asking these questions? I don’t understand why they think this way? I don’t know why I’m listening to these people? Why doesn’t somebody just shake them and get their head on right? Why doesn’t someone react to them? Why are you letting them, in this film, talk? Why aren’t you shutting them down and debating with them?” And it’s basically all this stuff — this lack of sympathy response to it, lack of understanding, lack of humanizing in reaction to that — those are the harshest reactions.

As well as some who don’t just react that way to the Nones, but even to my entire story. “There’s so much book-learning and studying and asking all these questions throughout the film. I know that for me, it’s just, the Bible says so, and it’s not about religion, it’s about relationship,” and really this sort of bumper-sticker-like reaction that none of the Nones are okay with. “Okay, just have faith.” “Well I don’t, so now what do I do?” “The Bible says so.” “Well I don’t believe the Bible, so what do I do?” And those have always been the sort of harshest reactions, perhaps to no surprise, but it’s also disheartening, because part of the point of the film was to humanize the Nones and let them be vulnerable and real people with real experiences and real journeys and real struggles, which they put out there for an audience, which isn’t easy to do.

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Becoming Truly Human will start showing in churches and other “alternative venues” on August 22. See the film’s website and Facebook page for more info.

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