Amongst those who converse about religious trends in our society there is a term used to refer to folks like myself who do not claim any personal religious affiliation: we are the “nones”. Putting aside the quaint irony that the word sounds just like “nun” and thus could easily be confused with a thing that is basically its opposite, it is a friendly abbreviation that helps add some cohesion to a group of people who are otherwise seen as disconnected outsiders.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to the label. It explains a person’s present state of spiritual affairs well enough, but it obscures the religious places from which they might have come. Many people who currently identify as “nones” did not always find themselves in that category. I myself was a Bible-studying, gospel-preaching, youth group-leading Evangelical Christian for the first twenty-seven years of my life. For those folks, as for me, there is sometimes a slight discomfort with adopting the “none” classification because it does not capture or communicate the whole story--a story that includes chapters featuring some serious ecclesiastical commitments.
Given the nature of my upbringing and how sincerely devoted I was to the Christian cause, I cannot simply say that I have no religious affiliation. To do so feels--and is, I think--disingenuous. The church, no matter how much I wish to be free of it, is still in my head. It’s in my bones. I am still processing the ways I was indoctrinated (I might even say brainwashed) into illogical, often heinous, ideologies. I cannot just make the doctrine leave me. My stilted, nervous thoughts about sex exist because of the church. Guilt about having told numerous people they were going to hell swims in my heart. I have no idea when, or if, my fear of literal demons will subside.
Scrolling right past “Christian” and checking the box next to “None of the Above” doesn’t cover all that; it doesn’t even allow room for it. Yes, these kinds of categorical demographics created for the sake of gleaning statistics are naturally oversimplifying, but all too often “none” is interpreted as “having no interest in religion” when, on the contrary, folks like myself consider religion to be integral to our daily being despite having renounced involvement in it. We are not disconnected from it; we have been entangled with it, were perhaps hurt by it, and are trying to navigate the ever-present but unseen reality of its continued influence on our lives.
Every time I find myself in a situation in which I have no apparent choice but to identify myself as a “none”, I am reminded of how desperately we need a space in our society where ex-believers can assert and discuss their ongoing relationship with the traditional theologies and dogmas of their past. It might not fit as neatly onto a one-page survey as the typical short-list of religious options, but it is essential to our understanding of the spiritual state of our world that we acknowledge the number of lives being lived in the wake of indoctrination.
It is no small thing to shift religious gears mid-existence. It is an especially tricky feat when one’s identity was rooted in one’s belief system of choice throughout one’s most formative years. The perspective of those who have decided to take this extraordinary leap of faith is invaluable, but it lies so often untapped because doctrinal affiliation is assumed to be static, or a discrete fact unrelated to the past. On the contrary, the truth is that we--much like the great spiritual figures in our varied histories--are all on special journeys of our own, journeys that might find us in wildly different camps over the course of our lives. If we are given the opportunity to share the details of our movements with each other--if I can see where you have been and not just where you are--perhaps a more helpful (certainly more accurate) understanding of the dynamic nature of belief will spread. Perhaps we will learn to give ourselves and those around us permission to grow out of old ways, to grow into new ones, to be true to the honest convictions of our hearts even if they seem to contradict where we’ve been, and even if they don’t fit neatly into one little box.