What Atheism Can Learn From the ‘Nones’

It should be a victory for secularism.

Young adults are leaving organized religion in droves and religious leaders are bewildered. I’ll admit that as a young ex-Christian I speak from clear bias here, but nevertheless: in my experience, older Christians don’t get it. The generation gap is quite relevant, particularly when you consider the chronology at work here. Our parents started the Moral Majority. They started the Christian homeschool movement. They started new Christian schools and universities. They genuinely believed religion, or at least their religion, possessed the potential to transform America into a better place.

And you see how successful they’ve been. America is as divided as it’s ever been and Generation Joshua is generation prodigal.

I’ve written often about the need for older Christians to listen to the ‘nones.’ Because, typically, they don’t. Again, I’m speaking from my experiences, and nobody else’s, but historically whenever I try to discuss the issues that drove me away from church, I’m shouted down and my concerns are minimized. Christians haven’t relinquished control of the conversation. They write the books and the editorials. The result? We prodigals remain data points, conversation starters. Our stories are unheard. We’re not invisible, really, but we are subjects of study. The conversation is structured in a way that deprives us of the ability to produce our own narrative.

But Christians aren’t the only culprits. Atheists aren’t often much better. It’s easy to seize upon this data as evidence of Christianity’s intellectual failure but really, the situation demands more nuance. Yes, we’re the least religious generation in history, but that doesn’t mean we identify as atheist, agnostic, or any other variation on freethinker.

In an excellent article published yesterday the Boston Review’s Claude Fischer points out that although the numbers of people identifying as atheist or agnostic are up, the real increase is in people refusing any identification at all. When asked to characterize their beliefs they answer ‘no preference.’ ‘Unaffiliated.’ ‘Nothing in particular.’ Fischer calls them the ‘nones.’

I don’t really think this is shocking. I think it’s the inevitable consequence of waging culture war. The religious fundamentalists started it and too many people responded with fundamentalist atheism. When you prioritize movement politics over people, and ideology over intellectual nuance, you’re a fundamentalist, whether or not you believe in God.

Nones inhabit the gray in a world of black and white. Consider us conscientious objectors–yes, we might have defected, but we didn’t necessarily defect to the other side. And I’m not so certain this is a problem. The Great Exodus is an unprecedented opportunity for dialogue about the cultural rifts that polarize American society. I see it as evidence that my generation’s driving concern is social justice. I prioritized it over being a ‘good Christian’ and I prioritize it still over any other label. And the research says I’m not alone.

If you want your movement to grow, atheists, you’re going to have to incorporate social justice. That means intersectionality. That means you’re going to have to talk about feminism and racism and all those other -isms that so many of you seem to despise so much.

The church didn’t take those -isms seriously, either. You see how that worked out for them.


6 thoughts on “What Atheism Can Learn From the ‘Nones’

  1. Interesting post, Sarah. I’ll not point-counter-point in response other than to say, from my perspective, your lumping some of us progressive christians in with the fundies. I certainly understand your rejection of christianity given your experience, but… there are some progressives who are people of faith that embrace a social justice message and do what we can out of the concept of universal love for our fellow beings.

    Keep writing and working for your beliefs. I love your thought provoking challenges to the status quo and speaking truth to power.

  2. Interesting points. I think yea, most people I know who have left church just don’t identify with anything any more. Even though I still believe in God, I tend to identify myself as a theist in the mind, but in my heart, just one of those wanderers. I too care more about social justice than what someone believes about God or lack of it. One thing that I find difficult in atheist circles is they always try to deconvert me. I grew up with people trying to convert and deconvert certain people. It divides.

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