And Then There Were None(s)

Edd Doerr

This column is being written a few days after the Ides of March, which marks not only the demise of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE but also that of Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential run. But before we discuss this year’s political scene, let’s look at the rising phenomenon of the “Nones,” the religiously unaffiliated who, polls show, now make up about a quarter of American adults.

This quarter-of-American-adults figure, however, obscures the fact that only about one-third of the Nones are actually humanists, atheists, or agnostics. The other two-thirds are a very diverse mix of unchurched believers and seekers or those simply indifferent to the whole religion question. Confusing the picture further is the fact that many tens of thousands of humanists, nontheists, and freethinkers are “affiliated” with Unitarian Universalist, Ethical Culture, or Humanistic Jewish congregations. Complicating matters still further, a great many people who are affiliated with traditional religions are actually unbelievers. All of this bears out my haiku: “Labels may conceal / Far more than they might reveal. / They can mask what’s real.”

Two useful new books on this subject are by academics: Christel Manning’s 2015 book Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children (NYU Press) and Elizabeth Drescher’s 2016 book Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press). Manning, herself a None, a parent, and a professor at a Catholic university in Connecticut, concentrates her extensive research on what happens when Nones marry and start families. [She is the author of “Raising our Children to Choose for Themselves” (FI, April/May 2016).—Eds.] Their choices on how to relate to religion(s) or raise their children are quite varied and defy easy generalization. The following are some of her conclusions:

“Just as there are many studies pointing to religion’s benefits, there is also plenty of research showing organized religion to put children at risk. Numerous studies have associated religion with psychological and physical abuse of children, with long-term consequences for the victims’ lives. The best known recent example is probably the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church—although many would argue that religion per se was not a causal factor here. . . . (R)esearch literature suggests several instances where religious teachings and practices themselves do seem to be implicated in causing harm to children. . . .

“Religion has been shown to encourage physical abuse by providing a moral framework that legitimizes often severe corporal punishment. . . . The widely held Christian doctrine that children are born with a ‘wayward or distorted will’ and the belief that God would punish earthly pleasure with torture in hell also motivates parents to use physical punishment. . . . The result is that religion-based child abuse is not uncommon. . . .“Many people think that it is comforting to children to know that God watches over them. But the idea that God watches your every act and is aware of all your thoughts can be terrifying to children, especially when combined with traditional religious teachings about sin and punishment. . . .

“The claim made by some evolutionary psychologists that children are born with an inclination to believe in supernatural beings lacks empirical support; and even if it could be proven, it does not follow that parents should encourage such belief through immersion in organized religion.”

Drescher’s book covers much of the same ground as Manning’s, but it includes additional material, based on extensive interviews with Nones and considerable poll data. She agrees that the Nones category is spread all over the map and applies the term Somes to the three-quarters of Americans with religious affiliations. She finds that both the Nones and the Somes actually spend far more time and effort on family, friends, food, pets, and music than they do on religious or nonreligious thinking or activity and that the differences in this regard between Nones and Somes are rather small. She reports that her research found no shortage of ethical thinking among Nones compared to Somes, and she is even critical of the simplistic ethical thinking of large numbers of Somes. Drescher also notes that Pew studies found that when Nones were asked if they were “looking for a religion that would be right for you,” fully 88 percent said “thanks, but no thanks.”

Neither author, disappointingly, deals at all adequately with the organized humanist movement, formally launched with the 1933 Humanist Manifesto and augmented by the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II and subsequent declarations, or with humanist organizations or publications. One thing is clear, though, from these two books and from abundant data: if one totals the membership numbers of humanist and atheist organizations and adds the numbers of those affiliated with Unitarian Universalist, Ethical Culture, and Humanistic Jewish congregations, the organized more-or-less secular Nones add up to under one million people, about 10 percent of all secular Nones and 3 percent of the eighty million or so Nones. Of course, this does not diminish the importance of humanist organizations and publications, but it does suggest the advisability of a modicum of humility.

These two books are worthy reads, despite their limitations. Now let’s turn to the all-important 2016 elections.

In my last column (April/May), I highlighted three of the most important issues in this year’s elections: climate change with all its concomitants and the raging conservative wars on women’s reproductive choice and our public schools. To this list should be added, of course, such key social justice issues as the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1 percent, the skyrocketing influence of money in politics, increasing poverty, our crumbling infrastructure (roads, bridges, water and sewage systems, electricity grid), school and community resegregation, voter suppression, legislative gerrymandering, racism, foreign policy, international terrorism, and our over-incarceration binge.

We in the humanist camp need to recognize that peripheral issues need to be set aside, labels need to be regarded with suspicion, and all of us, Nones and Somes alike, must pull together to promote the many common goals that we outside the religious Right and extremist camps agree on. Readers of this journal and such others as Conscience, the quarterly of Catholics for Choice, for example, are on the same page on women’s rights and clericalism.

The clock is ticking.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

Reflections on politics and the growing body of research on Nones.

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