For the past few weekends, “Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly” on PBS has featured a mini-series entitled, “None of the Above: The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated.” The documentary report was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum in conjunction with PBS.
In the United States, one-third of adults under thirty have no religious affiliation. This includes one-in-ten adults over sixty-five. These numbers include former Catholics. The majority of the religiously unaffiliated are Democrats or lean Democrat; two-thirds of them believe churches and other religious groups are too involved with politics. Ranking high on the list of complaints are hypocrisy, social issues, excessive concerns with money and power.
None of the Above
Attempts to evangelize the Nones will likely fail – at least in the short run. Content with their lives, they have no plans to return to their former faith-tradition, find a church or other religious group to join. Hearing politicians quote from the Bible or make other overt religious appeals raises their eyebrows. God-talk should be eliminated but without alienating faith-based voters. In other words, “none of the above, thank you.”
Core Tenet of the Committed Nones
The religiously unaffiliated view a transcendent reality as naive. The human is the only dimension of life and is no longer viewed in terms of the hereafter. There are no goals or references which go beyond the human. The present is all we have. Period. Prayer, of course, is out of the question. According to one atheist, in times of adversity, he sits in his rocking chair and waits it out. Most will tell you unapologetically: “I am spiritual but definitely not religious.” Or, “I want no part of organized religion.” And, “I don’t practice.” Perhaps, “I’m a secular humanist.” This group has spawned friendly atheistic societies, and their blogs reach millions. Still there is doubt about the number of Nones who are truly secular though they live as if there were no God. Here we have the core of the Nones’ secular mentality.
Concern about a Better World
The Nones are educated and articulate, socially alert, civic-minded, peace-loving, and responsible citizens who intend to bring up their children in the same way. Just not with religious faith. They care about other people, value honesty, and hold the arts in high regard. The religiously unaffiliated proudly profess their way of life. At least externally.
For centuries, philosophers have been asking questions about ultimate being. They are really religious questions: Why is there something and not nothing? Why am I here? Is this all there is? What can I hope for? Why is there love? Why, suffering? Why am I a puzzle unto myself, doing the things I don’t want to do and avoiding those things I ought to do? Where does this ought-ness come from? Except for the public good, why ought I to do anything I don’t want? Doesn’t someone owe me an answer to these questions?
One extreme resolution to these questions is depicted in the 1967 Swedish film, “Elvira Madigan.” From first to last, this artistic film is based on a true story of an illicit affair between a young tightrope walker and a trick rider who is a married man but estranged from his wife and two children. The two run away, seeking to live free from society’s rules. Predictably, despair follows with no exit in sight. Only self-inflicted death.
The film’s soundtrack, the second movement of Mozart’s piano concerto, number 21 (K. 467), presages the ending. The music suggests the narrative – a perfect fit. What alerts the viewer is the rhythm, the rigid, unyielding, and pizzicato of the lower strings holding in check the melody that wants to soar freely over all. The music pursues the couple to their inexorable, irreversible, and inevitable demise even as it too fades away.
The Nones and the Thoroughbreds
Our culture, and not just Catholicism, now faces the phenomenon that has secularized all but a few regions in Europe. Benedict XVI has boldly observed that even Catholics live as though there were no transcendent reality, no God. The times require more than dutiful piety. They call for heroic faith, the real deal. Our earthly models? The saints, thoroughbreds for all to see.
God’s Grace in “Brideshead Revisited”
In Evelyn Waugh’s novel, “Brideshead Revisited,” God is the star in a half-paganized English Catholic family. In this epic, the human spirit, redeemed, can survive all disasters. We see this towards the end of the book and the film. Lord Marchmain, sojourning in Venice with his long-time mistress and companion, has repudiated his Catholic faith. Failing health returns him with her to Brideshead where he will spend his remaining days. The family summons a priest, but Lord Marchmain resolutely sends the churchman away. The family waits in distress.
As the end draws near, Lord Marchmain’s limp but determined sign of the cross seals his death-bed re-conversion. It remains one of the most powerful of all literary scenes. For him, faith was not primarily a matter of the head but of the heart, prompted by God’s grace. Charles Ryder, the prominent agnostic in the narrative, falls to his knees. He too signs himself. This scene has been mocked by anti-Catholics and Anglophobes alike. Waugh stands by his thesis: God is the star who engages every character in life’s fundamental option.
Conscience and Faith
Conscience is sacrosanct. The 1961 film, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” chillingly uncovers the web of warped minds who rationalized their consciences all the way to the Holocaust. People of any status can appeal to conscience and reason their way out of belief in God.
The Catholic Church insists that conscience is sacrosanct even if it is uninformed or in error. No one can be forced to accept the existence of God, a faith or a faith-tradition even though it is not unreasonable to do so.
In our individualistic climate of opinion, the Catholic faith is surely a challenge to live. Throughout the centuries, scandal among the ranks is nothing new, beginning with Judas and Peter. It is alive and well in the United States. Though the Church proposes the faith, it does not impose it on any one. Once accepted however, bearing the name Catholic is like holding “the pearl of great price” in one’s hands. Losing the pearl is a tragedy.
As for the Nones and All of the Above, God’s abiding grace is for the asking, and one may not enter that sanctuary wherein the soul faces the self in the encounter with God, known or unknown. The grace of the known – or unknown – God is always active and at work in those who wish to receive it, reject it, or ignore it.
Jesus warns against judging the hearts of others. Externals can be objectively adjudicated, but not the inner recesses of the heart. We can never, never know what is going on there.
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World has charged all of us to build a better world in three ways: (1) uphold the inviolable God-given right to life, (2) promote the dignity of every person, and (3) advance the common good (33-46).This mandate however was already initiated in the Garden of Eden. The call to fructify the earth is universal. The person of faith specifies this task and interprets it as collaborating as co-creator with God.
The Psalmist uses the image of a garden to describe those who are just. They are fruitful in all they do because, at heart, they remain rooted in the Lord. “They will flourish like a palm-tree and grow like a Lebanon cedar. Planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God, still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green, to proclaim that the Lord is just (Ps 92:12-15) … The just are like trees planted near streams; they bear fruit in season and their leaves never wither. All they do prospers.” (Ps 1:3-4)
The Christian scriptures are replete with images of fruitfulness. In the Middle East, the fig, for example, is one of the healthiest and most delicious of all fruits, symbolizing divine blessing and abundance. The barren fig tree has nothing to offer but misfortune. Jesus’ message is simple: we are expected to bear fruit in the garden, a metaphor for God’s kingdom. In common parlance, it means evangelizing the commonplace and sacralizing the landscape, a twofold vision that should appeal to the Nones and to All of the Above.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.