In 2012, a Pew Foundation Survey on religion revealed the rising number of religiously unaffiliated Americans — sometimes referred to as “the rise of the Nones” (not to be confused with “The Rise of the Nuns,” a movie script that’s been floating around in my head since the day I discovered “nunzilla”). Of course, labeling millions of people “Nones” (as if they stand for nothing) is a bit disingenuous. In reality, the study showed that most of the Nones self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.” While critical of religious traditions, these are people who feel a sense of moral conviction and connection to something beyond themselves. The problem with this fluid description is that it really doesn’t tell us much about them — or at least, cannot adequately reflect the diversity of their beliefs or practices.
My curiosity about the nuances of this emerging trend began at last summer’s Wild Goose Festival. It’s likely that most people who attend Wild Goose are Nones, especially considering the study found that even members of mainline denominations often describe themselves “spiritual but not religious.”
The festival was everything I hoped it would be: fun, engaging, and amusingly irreverent. In light of the unorthodox nature of Wild Goose, I was surprised to hear the Rev. Dr. William Barber — Christian minister and founder of the “Moral Mondays” movement— was the festival’s closing speaker. Barber looked more than a little out of place when he took the stage wearing a black preaching robe and white clergy collar. I wondered how the crowd would react to his traditional African American preaching style and frequent references to the Christian scriptures. In spite of the seemingly giant chasm between William Barber’s appearance and the unwashed Nones in the audience, when Barber invited the crowd forward for a traditional altar call people came in droves. And if that wasn’t enough cognitive dissonance for one day, I watched friends I know to be agnostic (on a good day) raise their hands as he began speaking in tongues over the loud speaker.
I had more than a few questions.
Why would a bunch of people typically suspect of religion respond to an altar call?
Was it a brief excursion into religiosity?
Or, is there something about the nature of an altar call that is already deeply engrained in their sense of spirituality?
I was reminded of this experience early last week, on a flight from Chicago to Washington, DC. The woman sitting next to me asked if I was a student. I told her I was a seminary student and that I studied theology. At first she appeared to react the way most people do when they learn you study religion; a mixture of interest and fear, followed by awkward silence and off-handed comments about the bible study they sat in on that one time. But she appeared genuinely interested, so we kept talking.
During the course of our conversation she told me she was an artist and while she identified as “spiritual but not religious” much of her art was inspired by the crucifixion. She promised to email me some samples of her work, which include dozens of paintings, drawings, and even taxidermy representations of Jesus’ death. In one painting, large faceless men lower a slimy worm-like Jesus down from the cross. In another, a white woman comforts a castrated African-American Jesus with a noose still hanging around his neck. My favorite is a mixed-media bedspread, featuring the crucified Jesus and two women reaching out of the duvet to cover his genitals.
Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what to say about someone who claims not to be religious and yet spends more time contemplating the crucifixion than most German theologians (and that is saying something). Or, how to explain why people drinking beer at an outdoor festival would suddenly drop to their knees in front of a robed clergyman preaching the gospel. What I can say is that I used to think “the rise of the Nones” meant the emergence of a generation indifferent to the beauty of faith traditions. Instead, I see people rediscovering what was meaningful all along and in so doing reviving the religious imagination.