None of the Above

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General surveys and census reports often ask people about their religion with a list of traditions and the additional choice, “none of the above.”

According to recent research, news and academic pollsters, that last choice seems to be the one showing the most growth. Recent studies show that Catholics, evangelicals and “nones” are statistically tied, each being around 20 to 25 percent of the population. The number of “nones” has almost tripled since the 1990s, and some researchers estimate that this will be the largest group in as little as five years.

This may not mean that the person doesn’t believe in God. While some are truly atheist, a good number consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” That means that certain aspects of religion, belief in a higher power, moral values, religious practices and the quest for a sense of something beyond themselves are still attractive.

They may even accept the principals of a particular faith — such as Christianity or Buddhism — in its broadest sense they just don’t want to identify with a specific belief system that aligns them to any one organized religion.

In my interfaith experience last year with Buddhist and Christian nuns from 17 countries, it was universal that all are finding it hard to keep young people interested in a faith tradition. All acknowledged that part of the blame falls on the churches themselves.

Many of the “nones” were, at one time, part of a religion, but feel let down or betrayed.

It isn’t just the big betrayals like sexual or financial scandals by representatives of their church. For many I know, it was something as simple as their congregation not being there for them at a time of personal crisis or behavior by a minister that made them wonder what the group’s faith really meant to the members and how they lived out (or didn’t) their claims of religious values.

Add to that the many terrible things they see on the news: Hindus attacking minority sects, a Christian shooting in a synagogue, Jews driving out Muslim settlers, a Muslim bombing Christians. What are they to think about all this religion?

Despite the many atrocities committed in the name of religion, every major faith shares certain moral basics such as the importance of human life, some version of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” a sense of responsibility for one’s actions that affects something beyond this current life. Even when people don’t share the same religion, they can usually identify with these same shared values.

What happens if we reach a tipping point of fewer people ascribing to these values? What happens if there is no sense of a common good? A campaign by an atheist group includes the slogan, “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Does this mean that if there’s no God we can do whatever we want? Is God somehow keeping us from enjoying life? Do we worry only because we feel like God is watching? How does freedom from God improve us?

It seems like a common moral compass is a rather good thing for a society to have. In its absence, we don’t have to worry about the common good but only our own good. For many, that personal good might lead them to care more about others, but for others it might mean competition, selfishness and even violence.

How can we help people to feel that something might be missing if they see themselves as the center and judge of all that happens in life? How can we help get some of the emphasis off of the “none” and back on the “above?”