'Nones' and belief

January 13th, 2017

None of the above

Possibly the most conspicuous trend in American religion in recent years has been the increasing percentage of adults who are “nones,” people who don’t identify with a religious group. They’re the ones who, when taking a survey on religious preference, would check “none of the above.” According to a Pew Research Center’s report released last August, a majority of nones (78 percent) were raised in a particular religion, and about half of these (49 percent) report that a lack of belief prompted their departure from that group. Stated reasons for their lack of belief included “science,” “common sense,” “logic” and “lack of evidence.”

The Pew report characterized three subgroups of nones: self-identified atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular.” In each of these subgroups, the percentages of those who were raised in a religion but simply don’t believe are as follows: atheists (82 percent), agnostics (63 percent) and “nothing in particular” (37 percent).

Definitions of belief

In its most common use today, in regard to religious truth, belief means intellectual assent: “I believe that too much rain causes flooding.” “I believe that brushing and flossing my teeth prevent tooth decay.” “I believe God exists.” This meaning is akin to one definition offered by Merriam-Webster.com: “conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence.”

One of the most memorable lectures I heard in seminary dealt with two definitions of the word belief. My professor contrasted belief as intellectual assent with belief as trust and said that before the era of science, belief in God most often meant trust in God, in much the same way that a child trusts a parent to provide food, shelter and love. Merriam-Webster’s definition of this kind of belief is “a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.”

Diana Butler Bass, a writer on religion and culture, explains that the English word believe has roots in belieben, which comes from the German word for “love.” Belieben doesn’t mean “conviction of the truth of some statement.” Rather, it refers to something that’s treasured or beloved. Believing something means investing it with love.

“Belief,” author Sara Miles contends, “is the least interesting part of faith. I can believe all kinds of stuff, whatever I choose — but what I believe isn’t the point. The point is to live in a relationship with God that’s not controlled by my own ideas. Faith is about putting my heart and my trust — my whole life — in God. Christianity is at heart about relationship — and the nature of my faith rests in relationship rather than belief.”

What happened?

What contributed to the nones’ loss of or lack of belief? We live in a culture that seems to declare that belief, as intellectual assent, is the point of religion. But fewer and fewer people believe, and fewer and fewer people feel the need to be a part of a community of faith.

Would there be more people in churches today if the point of religion was acknowledged as being in relationship with God? Does the inability to believe that so many nones express mainly come from the notion that Christianity is about “conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being”? How might trust, love, and relationship encourage or inspire those who have doubts?

'I don’t believe in God . . . I have faith'

“Let me begin with a confession: I don’t believe in God. Let me hasten to add — like a drowning man gasping for a breath of air — I have faith.” These are the opening words of a dialogue in Christian Century magazine between poet Christian Wiman and pastor Matt Fitzgerald. Wiman often speaks around the country to both secular and religious audiences. He says that when he tries “to be true to a faith whose truth is elusive” (that is, it has room for doubt), he’s “moved by the number of people, both secular and religious, who respond to this note of crisis.”

Wiman’s dialogue partner Matt Fitzgerald cautions against perpetuating the widespread notion that faith ought to be “unalloyed joy” or an “impossible state of happiness.” He says, “It is liberating for people to hear that while faith is like water on parched lips, it is also sheer, unanswered longing.” Noting that he often gets a “more enthusiastic response” to a sermon on doubting Thomas than to his Easter sermon, Fitzgerald likes to reference theologian Karl Barth’s quotation of Paul Althaus: “I do not know whether I believe, but I know the one in whom I believe.”

At the end of this dialogue, Fitzgerald concludes, “The important thing about Christianity isn’t our belief. The important thing is the God we believe in. Christianity says that God loves us so deeply that [God] collapsed the distinction between earth and heaven, assumed our ‘common lot’ and came to be with us.” We have simply to “respond, to reorient ourselves toward the one who loves us. To try to get to know God better.”

Nurturing an “owned faith”

In an article called “Raising Thomas: Questions and Doubts as Catalysts for Faith Formation in Children and Youth,” Christian educators David Csinos and Ivy Beckwith make the case that nurturing faith requires providing space for questions and doubts. They write, “Children and adolescents should be encouraged to ask the questions that arise on their own journeys of faith in order to develop the tools they will need to nurture their spiritual development.” Citing writer Anne Lamott’s statement that the opposite of faith is certainty, not doubt, they point out, “Young people are growing up in a culture that rejects ‘Because I said so’ as an answer to the question ‘why?’ ” If they see the church as a place that discourages their questions and doubts instead of encouraging their search for meaning, they’re more likely to leave the institutional church and possibly Christianity.

Csinos and Beckwith affirm that it’s in asking questions, sharing doubts and being open to truth wherever we find it that we grow toward what Christian education professor John Westerhoff called “owned faith.” They say that this kind of faith isn’t “just taught to a young person, but [is] generated by that young person’s creative engagement with God and scripture in the world.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge to a congregation in trying to provide this kind of nurture is the reality that members of most congregations have different levels of comfort with this approach. While some of them agree with the idea of encouraging questions and doubts, others will find that very threatening. How can a congregation encourage the formation of an “owned faith” when the congregation itself is composed of people who are at vastly different places in their faith journeys?

The challenges will lead to a number of different ministries meant to nurture belief and faith. A church that’s aware of and open to these challenges and that develops such ministries is much more likely to address the needs of the nones who might show up in our lives and in our congregations.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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