Over the last decade or so, the conversation about God and religion in the public square has been dominated by the extremes. Whether angry atheists convinced that religion “poisons everything” or defensive and dogmatic believers who condemn atheists in equally strong language, the impression often given is that there are two groups of fundamentally different people out there who can do little besides shout at each other across the huge and unbridgeable chasm between them.
But the picture sketched above does not tell the whole story. In between these extremes exist more moderate atheists and believers, as well as a growing demographic of people referred to as the “nones”—a name derived from checking the “None” box on surveys asking for one’s religious preference. Simply put, Nones aren’t sure about God and religion. They’re not, by in large, atheists (93% claim to believe in God or a higher power), nor are they adherents of any particular religious tradition. They’re searching, seeking, inquiring. They’re open to God, but not in traditional forms and expressions.
Former NPR correspondent Eric Weiner speaks for the Nones in his new book Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine. In a recent article, Weiner expresses his exasperation with the “true believers” and the “angry atheists” that have dominated (North) American religious discourse over the last decade or so. Like many of us, Weiner sees the world as just a bit more grey than the black and whites offered by these two groups, and is open to a much wider range of questions and answers than they are.
According to Weiner, Nones
don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people—more loving, less angry—then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.”
Nones are, apparently, characterized by an extremely pragmatic approach to issues of God and religion. The fundamental question, according to Weiner, is not, “What is the good, the true, and the beautiful?” but “what works for me?” Of course, there are numerous unstated assumptions about the nature of the good and beautiful embedded in Weiner’s assertion that if a spiritual practice makes us better people it is “true,” but this is, nonetheless, an undeniably human-centred approach to questions of God and religion.
A little later, Weiner makes this even clearer:
We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.
“Straightforward,” “unencumbered,” and “absolutely intuitive.” These are interesting adjectives to place alongside of the quest of faith, to be sure. Historically, the pursuit of God has been one of great joy, self-discovery, and peace, to be sure, but also one of self-denial, struggle, and even periods of great doubt and suffering, as countless people of faith down through the ages would attest. A prominent image of the path to God is one of ascent—an image evoking the long and arduous process of climbing a mountain. There is exertion and pain and struggle on the path to the top. Indeed, Jesus himself said that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Evidently, faith isn’t supposed to always be easy.
We have just made our way through the Christmas season. If the Christian story is to be believed, the light of the world entered the human predicament in a most unusual, unexpected, uncomfortable, and possibly even embarrassing manner. Jesus’ arrival on the human scene did not nicely align itself with what human beings thought ought to be the case, with how they thought divinity ought to look, with the way in which they imagined a rescue operation ought to be undertaken. It still doesn’t, for many of us. We have all quite likely imagined other, more “straightforward” ways for God to save than the way represented by the birth and career of Jesus.
But perhaps the truth isn’t always comfortable or unencumbered or straightforward or intuitive. Perhaps, in addition to our capacity to interrogate reality, the truth asks questions of us. Perhaps it is we who must conform to what is real and true and good and beautiful, rather than adapting and adjusting these concepts and behaviours to fit our preferences. Indeed, if truth really is something that exists outside and independent of human minds and hearts, then perhaps the first question to ask—for Nones and for all the rest of us—is not, “what works?” or “what seems to make the most sense to me?” or “what do I prefer?” but “what is true and how do I align myself with it?”
The Christian conviction is that the struggle of faith—with all of the wrestling and sorting through our embarrassment and confusion and discomfort as we align ourselves with what is true—is worth it. And that the view from the summit of the mountain is spectacular.