Pope Benedict and the 'nones'

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Pope Benedict has announced that he will soon step down as head of the Roman Catholic Church. He is not the only one who is resigning.

There is a category of folks, called "nones" by demographers, who are resigning from the Church itself. Nones are the people who check "none of the above" when asked what religion they affiliate with in surveys like the U.S. Census.

A National Public Radio report on nones in January stated, "Young adults are drifting away from organized religion in unprecedented numbers. According to the Pew Research Center, one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation."

In that same report Harvard Professor Robert Putnam said, "I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue."

Twenty-four-year-old Owen O'Riordan described how he "resigned" from not only the Catholic Church but the Christian faith as well. "My childhood religious experience is fairly standard," he recalled. "My parents are Irish and devout Catholics. I attended Mass every Sunday, and I remember being fairly fond of it. I was an altar boy at St. Bernardine's for years. I went to St. B's until fourth grade and to a Catholic university, but by mid-college, 19 or 20ish, I had fully realized that I don't really believe in a higher power.

"In high school I read Kurt Vonnegut," he explained, "and he was my first experience with serious religious doubt. Couple that with my love of punk rock and other alternative subcultures, and it was basically a done deal," he said.

"As far as I can remember, I was always afraid of God and I prayed often, but I never really moved past the image of a big white man with a beard in a robe image. As I got older, I slowly realized that's a fairly childish view of God, and I started thinking harder about how God fit into my life," he added. "Eventually, I overcame my fear of doubting God and immediately being killed (by lightening or something dramatic). Questions lead to other questions and then Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick really opened up my mind to humanism and doubt."

O'Riordan concluded, "These days, I try to actively challenge my beliefs every so often. It's scary to think that I could be totally wrong and end up spending eternity in hell. But it's almost as bad to live your life in fear of something so unknown and undefined. I don't try to turn people away from their beliefs, but I do enjoy hearing what my friends have to say about God and other higher powers."

I really appreciate Owen's willingness to provide us with a window into the mind of one particular "none." Look to my blog to read the entire transcript of my interview with him. In following blog posts, I'll share other stories of nones with whom I've had conversations.

Several of my friends are nones. They are all decent, ethical people. They're not all atheists or even agnostics. What they have in common is the attitude that the institutional church is irrelevant at best, and at worst it's dehumanizing, authoritarian and responsible for much of the world's suffering.

In Lost in Transition, Christian Smith argues that changes in society and our culture are behind increasing numbers of young adults resigning from the institutional church. He argues that rampant consumer capitalism, ongoing failures in education, hyper-individualism, postmodernist moral relativism, and other aspects of American culture are all contributing to the chaotic terrain that emerging adults must cross.

Since my ordination as a Lutheran minister 33 years ago, I've been having conversations with many, many nones, even though they weren't called that until recently. What I've learned is that I'm not going to change their thinking with quotes from the Bible because they don't accept its authority; or with reasoning, because reasoning is what led many of them to doubt God's existence; or with testimonies, because their experience is what tells them that the church is irrelevant.

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