Greetings, Nones! No, not nuns. Nones. That is, folks who check “none” in surveys asking about religious affiliation. Pew Research Center released its most recent survey of American religious life and found that “nones” had risen to 23 percent of the adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007. If you are already a church person, you likely know some nones personally or are related to some. If you are a none, and are reading this, kudos for continuing to explore issues of faith! We churchgoers (pastors, leaders, and members) need to do a better job of reaching out to you, of connecting a life of faith to everyday life, and most importantly, of addressing your honest and sincere criticisms and questions.
Nones, along with the rise of out-spoken atheists, do not occur for no reason. As we all look across the globe, we see violent and extreme expressions of jihadist Islam. This religious barbarity casts a shadow over all religions. Some even suggest that religion in general is the larger problem; no religion seems to be, therefore, their best option. However, these same critics would never suggest that the solution to bad politics is no politics at all. No one would argue that the best solution to a bad diet is to not eat. The best solution to bad religion is not no religion, but rather good religion.
Nones are very often thoughtful and intelligent, and are quickly able to identify how the church has failed (or refused) to offer equally thoughtful and intelligent answers to pressing questions. I don’t consider someone who identifies as a “none” to be an antagonist of the church. Clearly, some activists are simply church haters and are irrational in their understanding of religious freedom and what faith offers. Most nones I meet are not extremists. They are typically decent folks who simply have not found the church to be valuable or relevant to their lives. I tend to think of nones as something like wolves to a caribou herd. They are able to identify what is weak and vulnerable, or even sick. My preferred question to nones is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” I like this approach because most of the time I am able to tell them that I don’t believe some of those things either. They often critique rich pastors who preach a health and wealth gospel, or faith healers, or those who claim to be Christian but live lives willfully disconnected from Christian teachings. More often than not, though, I hear nones speak of how the church has failed to answer their questions or meet their needs.
Ted Turner, creator of CNN and TBS, is infamous for his anti-Christian sentiments. And yet, Ted Turner was raised in a devout Christian home. When his sister developed lupus, young Ted prayed that God would heal her. When she died, he was finished with God. The church failed to answer his heartfelt questions about God, suffering, and prayer. As a result – none.
Where is God in light of human suffering? Is the church anti-science in terms of creation and the natural world? What is the case for the virgin birth and what evidence suggests that Jesus really rose from the dead? Great questions! Not questions the church should fear but should welcome.
In human development there is a time when a child goes from coloring pictures about the blue sky to asking why the sky is blue. It is an essential phase in cognitive development. Similarly, I believe it is essential for authentic faith development to, for example, go from reading a story about Noah’s ark to asking how all those animals got in there. The church should welcome people’s doubts and questions. Truth is never threatened by questions or doubts because Truth never changes.
Learned, brilliant, creative thinkers have always been a part of the church. Paul of Tarsus, Augustine, Athanasius, Thomas Aquinas, Nicolaus Copernicus, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S Lewis, and countless others have blended intellectual rigor, disciplined reason, and deep faith. In fact, for most of its history the church was the center of education, literacy, scholarship and enlightenment. My own Presbyterian roots of John Calvin and John Knox continue to emphasize the tremendous value in the exercise of the intellect at the intersection of faith and life.
Thank you, nones, for your questions. Keep asking. Demand clearer answers, but don’t stop if you don’t immediately encounter solid, thoughtful answers. The church has always had great answers to the great questions of life, answers that reach back through our history and properly engage science, philosophy, and logic. But, not every believer is equipped or ready to respond. Nevertheless, I can assure you that God exists, God is knowable, and the God of love does cohere with our experiences of human struggles. The answers are there. They are not always easy answers, and never simplistic. But they are worth exploring. Just keep asking. And by the way, the sky is blue because sunlight is scattered by gases and particles in the air; blue light’s shorter waves scatter more easily thus coloring the sky blue. Now, about God …