The “Nones” Are Becoming Somethings

Tom Krattenmaker

Ten years out from the barrage of best-selling “new atheist” manifestos, something different is happening in the gathering wave of those who check “none” when asked for their religious affiliation.

Among the newer atheists (plus agnostics, spiritual-but-not-religious people, and the otherwise nonreligious), it’s not just the absence of God belief and church participation that defines the conversation and exploration. It’s interest in, and pursuit of, questions like: What do we believe in? How shall we live and treat others? What can make our lives meaningful?

Their pursuit of these big questions bodes well not only for those who are part of the growing population of nonreligious, but also for religious people who are open to cross-culture partnerships and collaborations to advance the greater good in our increasingly secular century.

“Shock troops.” This is an analogy I floated with author Sam Harris in a conversation 18 months ago. His 2004 book, The End of Faith, and its 2006 follow-up, Letter to a Christian Nation, had firmly established Harris as one of the preeminent representatives of new atheism. The book tour for his then-new release, Waking Up, was bringing him to ultra-secular Portland, Oregon, my home at the time, and the event organizers recruited me to be his onstage interviewer.

Clearing Spaces

During the conversation – held, intriguingly, at a Unitarian church downtown – I laid out for Harris a theory that maybe, in retrospect, critics of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and himself could concede that these writers’ flame-thrower attacks on religion and religious people had served a purpose.

Maybe, I offered, they had empowered and cleared out space for those just behind them: a larger crowd of people – nonreligious people with milder temperaments, essentially – who were ready to bring a more positive secular voice into the public conversation about ethics, meaning, doing good, and being good.

What did Harris think of this theory? He didn’t care for it, as I recall. He rejects suggestions that his broadsides against religion are unwarranted either in substance or tone. But even his own career was, at that very moment, furnishing evidence of the theory’s validity. Waking Up did not focus on the ills of religion, but, rather, on the benefits of meditation as part of a nonreligious spirituality.

So it is with the younger generation of nonbelievers who have flowed into this cleared-out space. They do not want to dwell, generally speaking, on that which they don’t believe. They want to identify, develop, and pursue what they do believe, what they do care about, how they can deepen their own lives and improve the lives of others.

Parting Ways

As with Harris, the intervention of time has had a marked impact on new atheism’s other leading swordsmen. God is not Great author Christopher Hitchens is dead, felled by cancer in 2011. Richard Dawkins of The God Delusion fame is still active in antitheism advocacy and retains some of his stature. But he has alienated many of his one-time and would-be listeners and admirers with frequent public outbursts that bespeak, in the words of one of his former devotees, a “narcissistic anti-religious extremism that flirts with outright racism.” This critic, a political commentator and campaign manager named Chris Sosa, probably spoke for many when he declared earlier this year in a Huffington Post headline, “I’m finally breaking up with Richard Dawkins.”

As a participant in the Yale Humanist Community (YHC) in my new city of New Haven, I am finding a similar bent among the core participants. They’ve either broken up with Richard Dawkins and what he represents, or they never fell for him in the first place. These people, many of them millennials, exhibit little interest in joining the attacks on religion that are common among older-generation atheist leaders. In these circles, one sees a willingness to collaborate with religious people and institutions to serve the community.

Last year, undergraduate participants in YHC undertook an ongoing service project with students active in Yale’s St. Thomas More Center, a Catholic ministry. Also, Christians are welcome at – and, indeed, occasionally attend – YHC’s discussion groups and “Humanist Haven” Sunday gatherings.

A Search for New Affirmations

These are manifestations of the philosophy articulated by YHC executive director Chris Stedman in his frequent speaking and media appearances and his well-known book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon, 2013). Mentored at the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, the 28-year-old Stedman advocates a positive role for the nonreligious in interfaith dialogues and the broader public conversation about strengthening communities and improving the lot of human beings across the planet.

From his vantage point, Stedman observes “a significant shift away from, ‘This is what I don’t believe,’ toward, ‘Yes, these are the things I believe and affirm, these are the values I hold, these are the propositions I find valuable, and these are the things that give my life meaning and joy.’”

What are those things? The kind of humanism exemplified by YHC does not deign to dictate all the answers. Rather, it frames the questions and provides a community in which to pursue them – which is far preferable to solo voyaging when a person embarks on a journey of this sort. The answers that are emerging within the humanist community in and around Yale include community service, an ambitious public art project, and gatherings to learn about social issues and work out their implications for participants’ ethics and behavior.

Winter Light

Particularly revealing is the effort to create an art installation for display on the New Haven Green during the Christmas/winter holiday season each year. Rather than acting out the tired War on Christmas scenarios and fighting to remove the overtly religious displays that appear on the Green, YHC has commissioned an artist to create a light sculpture representing the winter solstice theme of light and hope during the darkest time of year. The winning artist’s proposal is an updated take on a lighthouse – evocative of New Haven’s history but very much of the present technological moment, glowing from top to bottom and using motion sensors to change color as people walk toward it and around it. Plans call for the piece’s installation in December 2016.  

Stedman, an evangelical Christian in his teenage years, acknowledges the lingering influence of Christian teachings on his career as a humanist leader. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, to hear an echo of the Golden Rule in what he says about another aspect of the humanism that is being modeled in and around Yale.

“What is happening among some of the nones – certainly in our humanist community in New Haven – is that we are not only investing more deeply in our own beliefs but asking at the same time how our values intersect with others’ values, and how we can support those communities.”

As all this suggests, the “nones” are becoming somethings. The exact nature of that something is a work in progress, and it will probably never yield to strict definitions and dimensions. But this much is clear: The process bodes well for the project of pluralism and the possibilities for religious people to collaborate with one of our society’s fastest-growing and increasingly influential populations.

Tom Krattenmaker is communications director at YDS and a member of the board of directors of the Yale Humanist Community. He is the author of the forthcoming book Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower (Penguin Random House).