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Posts Tagged "Religious belief":

The Nones are Something: Wendy Dackson


My Facebook feed recently had an interesting piece from Huffington Post’s religion blog, entitled 10 Facts about the Transforming Global Religious Landscape.  I find the facts interesting, but not surprising.  Christianity and Islam are the two dominant religions throughout most of the world; Judaism is only the dominant religious affiliation in Israel, and claims a smaller percentage of world population than folk religions (although it has, arguably, the greatest cultural impact of any single religion, being the parent of both Christianity and Islam).  The majority of the world’s Hindus are geographically located in India and a few neighboring countries.  None of this is news.


What many people, especially loyal adherents of specific religious traditions, may find surprising or even upsetting is the data concerning those who do not claim affiliation with any religious tradition.  The article calls them the “nones”, and they cover a fairly wide swath of humanity.  This group includes atheists, agnostics, the “spiritual but not religious“. Probably a fair number of people who accept most of  the teachings of a particular tradition, but do not attend its worship services or submit to the authority of its temporal leadership, fall into this large category as well.  Christianity claims just under a third of the world’s population; Islam just under a quarter.  The “nones” are the world’s third largest spiritual grouping, at around 16% of people living on earth.


A religion such as Christianity, which is bound by the Great Commission (most familiar as Matthew 28:16-20), and called to spread its message of “good news” to all nations, preaching repentance from and forgiveness of sin (Luke 24:44-49) needs to take the phenomenon of the Nones much more seriously than I believe it is doing.  Especially if the final point of the HuffPost essay is correct in its claim that the Nones have spiritual convictions, we cannot fall into the trap popularized by those religious leaders who dismiss them as unformed, vacuous, self-serving, or just too lazy to go to church.  This was my biggest flash-point with Lillian Daniel’s book on the Spiritual but Not Religious, and it led to a review of her book and a set of more personal responses and reflections that have appeared here on Lay Anglicana.


The Nones believe.  We, as Christians, need to respect that, and find out what forms the content of that belief.  It might also be a good thing, while we’re at it, to learn the source of that belief.  I think it is very likely that, if the content has some component of the teachings of one of the major religions, then the person holding that belief has had substantial contact with the institutions of that religious tradition.  If s/he now identifies as unaffiliated, we must ask why. If the contact has not been direct, and a person thinks the teaching and practice of the religious tradition is good but still refrains from identifying as a member, we must also ask why.


People refuse to affiliate with, or choose to leave, institutional religion for a variety of reasons, and I believe it is a very foolish community that does not make an honest attempt to understand the phenomenon of the Nones, or the Spiritual but Not Religious.  Dismissing them as spiritually vague or lazy, while insisting they need the churches (and simply saying so more loudly when objections are raised) is not ‘evangelization’.  Evangelization means sharing good news.  Treating people like spiritual dimwits is the exact opposite, and those who reject it should have the admiration of thoughtful people of faith.


Yet, doing so has become popular.  Lillian Daniel’s book is perhaps the most egregious example, but the attitude has trickled down even to educated lay Christians.  A recent Facebook conversation yielded the following comment by someone who claims to be concerned with mission, but said the Spiritual but Not Religious are “sometimes curious but uncommitted and privileged people who may or may not have concern for the deeper things of ministry and mission”, and that they are “unwilling to see beyond their own privilege and social location.” My interlocutor in this conversation has a postgraduate degree in mission studies from a liberal denominational seminary.  If this is what is being taught as “mission”, I cannot be at all surprised that churches are failing to reach the unaffiliated.


People may leave a church for a variety of reasons–moving to a new area (and not reaffiliating once they are settled), forming relationships not sanctioned by their spiritual community, realizing that there isn’t much there for them.  There is also the possibility of having been victimized by people in power in the church who have misused their positions of authority.  The cases of this last are notorious, but overall, I think not the overwhelming reason people cease to claim religious affiliation.  But good “mission” involves understanding the reasons, and not blaming those who do not respond to our message because we have failed to deliver it authentically and convincingly.


I have a very different take on the Nones, and most specifically those who have been formed in a Christian tradition but no longer attend or self-identify with a particular church.  It is rooted in James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (see my earlier blog post about the Big Bang Theory of Faith for a brief synopsis).  Churches, and the training for their ordained leadership, are geared to a Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith. When people reach a more deeply questioning Stage 4, the vast majority of Christian churches cannot accommodate their journey any further.  Rather than stunting their own growth, people leave.  It could be for a time, and there may be a return at some later point.  But the inquirer will be a different person—and the same church structures may not be able to accommodate him or her.  My suspicion is that rather than being vague, lazy, or unable to see past his or her own social location, someone who leaves is being very rigorous about their spiritual growth and broadening their view.  A boxed-in church, even a liberal one, cannot be home to this person.  And so, rather than trying to grow in a situation that does not allow it, the inquirer has little choice but to forge his or her own path.


This is not a happy situation.  People who leave often miss their communities—the ritual, the celebration, the support.  But people who have outgrown their churches often find that the community is no longer a place of support, and even feel marginalized when they attend or attempt to participate.  If they have gone to great efforts to develop gifts and offer them back to the community, they may feel their gifts are rejected (this is my particular relationship with the church at the moment).  They may feel the questions they raise are dismissed by the church.  And so, after a period (often years) of feeling rejected and devalued, they leave.


The church may have become very sad news to those who have left it.  And possibly even sadder when they try to return and find that their journeys and insights are dismissed, and that to be part of the community once more they have to regress in their spiritual growth.  As well, the churches may look very silly to those who have a vague idea of their message, but who hang back from entering.


A few years ago, I contributed an essay to a collection on the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr edited by two Church of England Bishops; my offering concerned an exploration of Niebuhr’s “outsider ecclesiology“.  I am convinced that the most important thing the church can do for its mission is to take the Nones/SBNR seriously (not just dismiss them as lazy, vague, or privileged), and attempt the difficult task of viewing the church from their vantage point. My opening quote from William Temple in a recent Lay Anglicana offering indicates this need—it is the fault of the church if it fails to preach the gospel in a way that appears to outsiders as authentically good news.  We need to develop leaders–ordained, but perhaps more usefully senior lay leaders—who can hold up a mirror to the church so the church can see itself as those who are not already convinced by the gospel do.  We need to develop theological language that respects those who stand, with good reason, outside the Christian community (and we have to really enter into dialogue, not just some cheap Christian ‘pitch’ that sounds like a telemarketing script).  We have to treat our critics as intelligent, thoughtful people of goodwill who deserve our respect—otherwise, they have no reason to respect us.  So far, what I see from ‘mission’ studies has neglected this.  We train people for ‘mission fields’ far away from home.  That is the easy route.  The more difficult is to enter into respectful conversation with the people we ride elevators with each day.  The risk is that we will be changed in the encounter, and see a bigger vision of the Gospel than we get cozily wrapped up in by our refusal to change.



In most of the world, the Nones are the second-largest spiritual grouping (and in China, the largest).  To behave toward them in condescending or dismissive ways is a betrayal of the Great Commission, and a commitment to fail in its execution.

‘Making Sense of Faith in God’: Jonathan Clatworthy

The Revd Jonathan Clatworthy is that rara avis,  a priest who is concerned about life in the Church of England (he is General Secretary of Modern Church), as well as an academic theologian and philosopher, who,  as an eminently human  human  being, wears and displays his learning with the lightest of gossamer touches.


As I had the good fortune to meet him at the Gladstone Library course on ‘The Futures of Anglicanism’, I can tell you that he is excellent company. But, for the second time in my life, I felt in the presence of a hippogriff. A conversation with Jonathan is:

…an exhilarating ride on a Hippogriff, alternately soaring to the heights before diving down to skim over the water. He challenges your preconceptions, nudges you out of your ruts and re-boots your cerebellum. No wonder it is a breathless experience, but he does it all with the most exquisite courtesy and consideration for other peoples’ points of view.

This is a slim volume, unassuming in appearance. The publisher’s blurb, while perfectly correct in its description, does not do justice to the scope of this work. Luckily for the reader, this is no simple logical thesis on the existence of God. In order to illustrate his points, and show how the various arguments arose at particular points in history, he incidentally gives a synopsis of the whole history of Western philosophy – metaphysics, moral philosophy, epistemology and logic. To do this,  he has distilled the wisdom of the ages into 113 pages, like a master chef reducing a sauce to its essentials, a jus. For instance, on page 55, he offers nuggets summing up the philosophy of Kant, Kierkegaard, Bentham and J S Mill, all fitting seamlessly into his narrative.

The result would therefore be difficult to read at a sitting, as it needs time to digest. On the other hand, there is not a sentence in the book that I did not understand. I began at the beginning and continued to the end, but it might be an idea to read the introduction, followed by the conclusion (so you know where he’s going to), followed by the main part of the book (so you can see how he got there). As this is not a novel, there is no risk of spoiling the plot!

I offer you a sample paragraph, at the end of his preface:
I have finished writing this book at a time when world capitalism is in crisis…It may seem that analysing theories about God is an unnecessary luxury. I believe the opposite. If human minds are the only minds capable of working out what we ought to do, then the best humanity will ever do is serve the interests of the most powerful. If , on the other hand, a wiser, more benign mind is responsible for the way we have evolved, then it makes sense to hope that humanity can rise above self-interest and achieve a better way of living.
He has two comments on the search for a spiritual dimension outside organised religion which interested me. The first is that ‘people who deliberately engage on a spiritual search usually expect to remain in control of their own searching process‘. And the second is: ‘Faced with a choice between rejecting all spiritual awareness and rejecting modern scientific knowledge, it is understandable if many prefer to keep their options open. The result is a range of vaguely ‘spiritual’ practices and ideas which can be picked up and dropped with minimal commitment, in a culture reluctant to subject any of them to rigorous examination.

Both observations ring very true, to this reader at least.

One of the elements of ‘Making Sense of Faith in God’ is an exploration of the way people think. As he says, his analysis not a neurological one, but a philosophical one. I cannot resist the cartoon on the right, which I am confident he will forgive me for including as it illustrates very well one of the points that he makes. He is unimpressed with the claim of some atheists to have all the answers, and this illustrates why.


As you will have gathered, I much enjoyed reading this book. I took a week to do so from cover to cover, and would have like to spend longer (and will). It is not a book to be dipped into, exactly, as you need to keep up a certain pace in order to follow the argument. But it needs to be sipped slowly and with a degree of respect, like the finest vintage.








Author: Jonathan Clatworthy; ISBN 9780281064045; SPCK Publishing 112 pages Paperback (198 x 129 mm) Book series Modern Church £7.99
What SPCK says about the book: “Many people’s understanding of the world does not include God. A number of ‘new atheist’ authors – such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett – claim that science can explain how the universe works without any need for the divine, and this seems to have become the default position in modern Western culture.
But a great number of people are prepared to spend time and effort trying to establish some sort of spiritual dimension to their lives. Faced with the choice between rejecting modern scientific knowledge or all awareness of the divine, they choose from a range of vaguely ‘spiritual’ practices and ideas, which can be picked up and dropped with minimal commitment.
Making Sense of Faith in God , as the title indicates, offers a different alternative: to reject neither reason nor God, because believing in God makes sense.”

The Tyrannosaurus illustration comes from Pinterest, (via Nathan Isnumberone).

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