The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio
By Nathaniel Torrey
There has been much speculation about “the nones,” the increasing number of people who do not identify with any particular religious denomination. The poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center, shows that nearly one-fifth of all Americans and nearly one-third of young people under thirty are unaffiliated with a particular religion or denomination. There have been varying reactions. As our own Mark Tooley points out, this isn’t necessarily a crisis of faith in America; many “nones” still profess to believe in God or some ultimate being. The rise of the “nones” could then be pointing to a crisis in denominational loyalty.
There are also those who wish to eschew the label of religious all together, seeing it as increasingly connected to political conservatism, homophobia, and sexism (according to the poll, a “none” is more likely to vote Democratic and affirm the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage). In one of an ongoing series of blog posts entitled “Meet the Nones” over at Sojourners, Alyssa Bain writes, “I am more and more hesitant to label myself Christian as I see traditional denominations come to the spotlight for being closely affiliated with so-called right-wing politics. Instead, I distance myself.”
I write today to add my two cents. The truth is for most of my life I was a “none”. I’ve only been a professing Christian for a very short time and I was not raised in any particular religious tradition at all. Though I identify as Eastern Orthodox and have been going to Orthodox services for over a year now as a catechumen, I have not been formally received into the Church and still await my baptism and chrismation (I have never been baptized in any denomination, even as an infant).
When I was growing up I was deliberately not raised to be anything. I was not raised to be an atheist, quite the contrary, I was always told that there was God, or something like Him, there was meaning and purpose in the world and that it mattered how I acted. This did not manifest itself in any particular tradition or into us going to Church on Sunday. I was raised in accordance with traditional morality: Things like lying, stealing, and cheating were always wrong. God was not given for the reason why goods things are good and bad things bad. They simply were.
I suspect my parents raised me this way because they wanted me to be able to choose what to believe. There is nobility in this sentiment, that the ultimate ground of reality and our relationship to it is serious enough that it should not be imposed willy-nilly. I was given nearly absolute (it upset my mother grievously when I proclaimed I was an atheist in high school, a period that lasted until college when I shifted to a softer agnostic/ therapeutic deist phase) freedom in figuring out where I fit in the grand scheme of things.
My experience might be similar to what many “nones” grew up with. Parents, in a spirit of liberal and democratic plurality, don’t wish to impose what they see as their world view on their children. In this day and age it is very modern and progressive to always leave all the options on the table. To remove some of the options strikes many as narrow minded. It is not only in abortion that we are a pro-choice people; it has expanded even to one’s entire view of the cosmos and one’s relation to it.
Lest anyone think I’m throwing my parents under the bus: I’m not. As I said earlier, what they did is noble in a sense. They respected me and the seriousness of life and “what it all means” enough to leave it up to me. If it weren’t for allowing me free reign, I may not be a Christian today. I’ve met many people, some who I’m sure would profess to be a “none” or unaffiliated, who have burned out on religion due to overzealous and domineering religious parents.
However, persisting unlimited choice is a problem. The virtue of plurality and choices begins to eclipse the virtue of committing to an ideal and sticking to it. For most of my college experience, I was firmly in favor of having all the options before me. I took what I saw as the best of all the philosophy, theology, and literature I read and threw out what didn’t jive with me. I had no interest in committing to all of them. In one moment I was a moralist, championing pagan virtue and natural law, and in my next breath I was a nihilist, preaching will to power and the meaninglessness of life.
Upon reflection, I was too afraid to commit to any worldview at all. If I did, that would mean I would have to behave or at least try to behave by certain principles. As long as I was trying all the options, but not committing to any of them, I could simply justify any behavior I wanted. I did have one governing principle: myself. My passions and desires shaped what I wanted to do, not what I felt was right. There was no need to struggle to do the right thing: the right thing was always whatever I wanted to do.
I’m only speaking from my own experience and I’m sure many of the nones come from many diverse backgrounds. However, I do wonder if something like my experience can be attributed to the rising nones. Raised to believe that any choice you make about life, the universe, and everything is ultimately the right one and with no reason to commit to any of them almost demands it. It is simply the path of least resistance. As the Church institutions have been muzzled and eroded from years of relativism, all that is left is us. Any decision you make ultimately becomes the right one if you are not committed to something larger than yourself.
Eventually, I realized that if I cared about Truth, and believed that it had meaning for my life, I could not remain a shopping skeptic forever. Implicit in the wandering free thinking skeptic who is “there for the journey” is the denial that human beings and the Truth can interact. But if the Truth does matter for human life, that means taking risks by committing ourselves to it as best we understand it. We will most certainly make mistakes as we fumble towards the divine, but to begin we must take, as they say, a leap of faith.