I Am Not a “None”

I went to church this week. Well, not exactly church, but to the remarkably-church-like Andover Hall at Harvard Divinity School (HDS). Throughout the school year they hold “Noon Services” there, one a week celebrating a different “religious tradition”. One week the Buddhists will have a service, the next week the Presbyterians, and so on.

This week it was the turn of the “HDS Religious Nones”, described in the service booklet as “an eclectic mix of folks who love to sing and share their lives, and who aren’t affiliated with an organized religion”, “spanning from atheist to spiritual-but-not-religious to religious-but-not-affiliated and everywhere in between”. I know some of these “Nones”, and they are lovely people.

Their service was lovely, too. It began with a welcome which stressed that no tradition guides their meetings, and that they see “none” as a space to be filled by their own creative efforts. Fair enough. Next came a reflection which included a stellar quote from Nietzsche: “the practice of the church is hostile to life.” Even better. Then, a reflection stressing that, for this student, the “Nones” group had provided a space for her to be fully authentic, and explore her religious and spiritual identity freely. Very good. We sang a delightful round based on the words of Rumi:

“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, yet again , come , come.”

I like a nice song. This led to a communal meal and group conversation – we were served pizza, no less! – and I’m a big fan of pizza. A reflection on the beauty and wonder of science followed, some ending words, then a closing (Christian) hymn: “Come My Way, My Truth, My Light”, the melody composed by Vaughan Williams, one of my favorite composers.

All in all, it was a pretty service put together by good people (some of whom I know well, all of whom I respect) whose values and beliefs I probably, in great measure, share. But it wasn’t me. I didn’t feel like the service fully represented my views and ideals, even though I am a nonreligious person and therefore, technically, a “None”. I felt slightly uncomfortable, as if there was some off-kilter about the whole thing. The last few years the “Nones” service was aHumanist service held by the Humanist group at HDS, and I yearned for that sort of service again.

This got me thinking: why didn’t I feel at home in this “Nones” service? What was missing? It wasn’t the “religiousness” of the thing: I’m that rare atheist who rather enjoys religious services and spaces. It wasn’t the music or the singing: I’m a long-time choirboy and I love a good song. It wasn’t the people, who were genuinely welcoming, friendly and smart. It wasn’t the location: I’ve been to events there before which didn’t spark unease. What was it?

The truth is, I find myself thinking, among millennial nonreligious seekers and the “spiritual but not religious” I often feel slightly out of place, like I’m marching just a tad off the beat. I commonly feel this way at interfaith events and in discussion with friends around my age, when the topic drifts to things religious. I feel like somehow I don’t fit the millennial religious sensibility, which seems focused on respectful dialogue, building bridges across lines of difference, and mutual care and concern despite differences in belief. It’s not that I oppose those things – far from it – or even that I think them unimportant. I think it’s great that some people find a home in spaces which allow them to roam freely across the religious landscape. It’s just that, for me, this sort of thing seems to omit something crucial, which Humanism provides. But what?

Fellow Patheos blogger John Halstead wrote, in a post explaining why he hadn’t joined his local Unitarian Church despite attending services for some years, quotes one-time president of the Unitarian Universalist Association Gene Pickett as saying, of Unitarian Universalism:

“The deeper malaise lies in our confusion as to what word we have to spread. The old watchwords of liberalism–freedom, reason, and tolerance–worthy though they may be, are simply not catching the imagination of the contemporary world.  They describe a process for approaching the religious depths but they testify to no intimate acquaintance with the depths themselves. If we are ever to speak to a new age,we must supplement our seeking with some profound religious finds.”

I agree with him, and his concern describes, too, why I am not a Unitarian Universalist. Pickett is arguing, essentially, that to seek “religious truth” is not enough: we also have to find - and Unitarian Universalism (and, I would argue, millennial none-ism) is often too hesitant to declare their findings. To pose questions is not enough, we also have to answer. The great questions of our age – religious, existential, ethical –  will not be resolved if we are unwilling to advance some answers!

I believe that, in the creation of Humanism, we human beings have discovered “profound religious finds”, and that our worldview should be based on those, and not merely on a commitment to “dialogue” or “understanding each other”. Millennial spirituality, it seems to me, poses many of the great existential questions, but fails to offer an answer to any of them. It seems to accept any answer as essentially valid. “Everything and nothing is true!”, they seem sometimes to say, “Believe what you will as long as you seek!” Suggesting that there might be a defensible and direct answer to a question like “Does God exist” seems frowned upon in many millennial settings, as if only a fundamentalist can possibly have convictions. It doesn’t take a stand, perhaps fearing that will alienate or offend somebody, that some “line of difference” will be erected which will prevent the peaceful coming-together of humanity.

I believe that for humanity to come together we must have ground to stand upon and we must be willing to defend that ground. We must have convictions as well as questions. We mustn’t let a healthy skepticism become a fuzzy-headed willingness to give equal time to every absurd belief. We mustn’t let our fear of being “divisive” cow us into failing to call-out the inhumane and the wicked. Sometimes conflict is necessary to defend what is righteous, and we must be willing to fight! I did not know, at the end of their service, what the Nones would fight for, what was non-negotiable – and that makes me uneasy. Because some beliefs are unworthy of respect, some ideas unworthy of the human intellect, some values unworthy of the human heart. Some things are wrong, others are wicked, and I want a tradition which knows what they are, and is willing to say so. As Stephen Fry once put it, “I have my own beliefs. They are a belief in the Enlightenment, they’re a belief in the eternal adventure of trying to discover moral truth in the world.”

Ultimately, I realized that despite my kinship with the HDS Religious Nones, I am not a “None”, and I am not a seeker. I am not a “non-believer”. There are things I believe as profoundly and strongly as any religious person – the equal dignity of people, the necessity of reason as a way of understanding the world, and our capability to change things for the better. I did my spiritual seeking when I was a teenager, thank you, and I found Humanism. Humanism is the ground where I make my stand. And while I am very happy – delighted even – to hang out with spiritual seekers and chew the cud, where the rubber hits the road I need more solid ground than they provide.

The “Nones” service, with its Rumi, its Christian hymn, and its Nietzsche was, it seems to me, a syncretic exercise, like spiritual potpourri: pretty bits and pieces from here and there, a concoction which smells sweet, but ultimately is made of dry, dead things which cannot nourish. I want my “religion” to be alive, vigorous. When I eat it will be of living fruit, when I drink of living water. The remains of old traditions do not satisfy my intellectual or existential hunger. While some period of searching and discovery may be necessary as we wean ourselves off the answers provided by our old religions, the world requires we get down to the business of crafting better answers than they offered. We do not have the luxury to wander, forever-uncommitted, sampling from the world’s religions like a spiritual buffet.

The full quote from Rumi, from which the round we sang was taken, reads as follows:

“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again , come , come.”

I believe that what we believe does matter. I am not a lover of leaving. I believe in making vows to a set of values and keeping them. I have sought, and I have found Humanism – and that is what I wish to celebrate.


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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.