It’s Not You, It’s Me (‘Unbelief’ is not a failure)

I recently came across an article on Patrol Magazine written by editor Jonathan Fitzgerald entitled “We are the Reason They Don’t Believe.” Fitzgerald is also the author of a book I’ve recently begun reading entitled, Not Your Mother’s Morals. The book explores the ways in which modern popular culture is changing the very ways in which we engage with and understand morality. Fitzgerald terms this new permutation of morality that now seems to be permeating through current films, art, music, and other mediums, the New Sincerity. This is something of a call to authenticity and a rejection of cynicism.
In the article Fitzgerald shares his reactions to the growing numbers of the social demographic now referred to as the Religious Nones, a subject that I myself have also been quite drawn and have written about previously as well (you can find the post here). Fitzgerald expresses his heartbreak over the angst and “unbelief” of the Nones stating:
I sat up in my bed staring at the ceiling and listening to people my age discuss how they stopped believing, how they’re trying to fill their lives with other things to replace religion, and most heartbreakingly, how they still want to believe, I couldn’t help but feel like I failed, like all Christians fail, to provide a space for the these sincere doubters.
Fitzgerald emphasizes his point stating over and again “We’ve failed them.” He also goes on to say that “As a believer, I want to win those ‘Nones’ back.”  Even though I identify as an Atheist and would certainly have to be numbered amongst the Nones I can sympathize with his point and I appreciate his honesty and sincerity. However, I can’t help but feel that he’s leading off from what I find to be inaccurate assumptions.
To begin with, the religiously unaffiliated should not necessarily be synonymous with “unbelievers.” As an unbeleieve myself I realize that I represent a minority within the Nones. Amongst the Religious “Nones” there has not been an overwhelming abandonment of theism. While this demographic has adamantly rejected religious identification, the clear majority have retained their belief in God. The largest group of nones (68 percent) say they believe in God or a universal spirit. Within that group, 30 percent of them are certain God exists and only 27 percent of nones say there is no God. Clearly, most of those that claim no religious affiliation have not ceased to believe.
Nor have the Nones ceased to believe in ethics and morality. They are drawn to activism and rally around the mobilization of social issues. They care deeply about equality, human rights, as well as social and economic justice. In many regards they have actively embodied “religious” ideals more thoroughly than most religionists. Perhaps here, Nietzsche was more right than we realize when he said that “Christian dogma was destroyed by Christian ethics.” Theologian Don Cupitt explains further that “Christian scrupulosity eventually forces people to admit that they can no longer believe Christian dogma.”
What is it the Nones don’t believe? It’s neither God nor ethics that is most adamantly being denied. They don’t believe in institutions, be they religious or non. They reject the concretizations of hierarchy and bureaucracy. But this is to be lauded. They have sought an autonomous authenticity outside the walls of formalized structures.
In Entertainment Theology, Barry Taylor highlights the that “this anti-institutional posture toward religion does not result in a rejection of the sacred[…] What is advanced instead is a new understanding of the relationship of the sacred and the profane, the spirit and the secular. The sacred and profane are blended into new configurations.” The old binary ways in which we have sought to order ‘reality’, society, experience, and the world can no longer suffice.
In a Big Think video technology futurist Daniel Burrus discusses what the occurrence of “linear change”, that is, change that is distinctly one way, unidirectional, as Burrus says, “Unlike cyclical change, when linear change hits we’re not going back.”
Once you got a smartphone, you’re not going back to a dumb phone. Once the people in China parked their bicycle and get a car, they’re not going to say, gee, lets get rid of the car and go back to the bike. Once people in India get refrigeration for their homes, they’re not going to say we don’t need refrigeration. Now these are one way – they’re not cycles – one-way linear changes that had profound…consequences.
While some of the Nones we may still feel a desire to “believe”, the simple fact remains that, because of the rapid exponential changes of technology, communications, globalization, social media, and the free flow and exchange of information and ideas, Nones are seeking to upgrade from the outmoded technology of the church and can no longer “believe” the way we once did.
Yet, if you look deeper I think you will see that they are reinventing belief, redesigning what it means to believe. Perhaps this is post-religious thought, whole news ways in which one can be “religious” are being innovated. In his article, “Critique of Religion and Religion as Critique: The Secularized Hope of Ernst Bloch, Gerard Raulet calls this “Dialectical Secularization.” Raulet writes that “Dialectical secularization does not abolish religion and its themes, but instead, inserts them into a dialectical secular practice where they retain their interpretative potentials.” He goes on to say that “Secularization, according to Bloch, is defined both as a break with and as the continuation of Biblical hope.”
In many regards, then, you could say that the church has not failed the Nones. The church has failed itself. It is has consistently failed to live up to its own designs, systems, and models. It is not because the church or religion has failed that the Nones became so. Rather religion and the church has failed to keep up with those who have become Nones. Religion has failed to make the strides that the Nones have made on their own.
In response to Fitzgerald’s article I must be clear, I did not choose to be religiously unaffiliated because you have failed me. You are not a failure because I am an Atheist and a None. You have failed me because you have seen my atheism and my religious disassociation as a failure.
 Paul Tillich drew upon such a distinction in his idea of the “latent church.”

In its prophetic role it is the Church which reveals demonic structures in society and undercuts their power by revealing them — even within the Church itself.. And in doing so the Church listens to prophetic voices outside itself, in judgment both on culture and on the Church in so far as it is a part of culture. Most such voices come from persons who are not active members of the manifest Church. But perhaps one could call them participants of a latent church[…] Sometimes this latent Church comes into the open. Then the manifest Church should recognize in these voices the spirit of what its own spirit should be and accept them even if they are most hostile to the Church.

This begs question what if the Nones are in fact the best example of the New Sincerity, what if the most authentic progression of religious scruples is religious disavowal?
What if instead of the church seeking to get Nones to join the church, the church sought to join the Nones? What if religion itself became religiously unaffiliated?
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2 responses to “It’s Not You, It’s Me (‘Unbelief’ is not a failure)

  1. Those who think that they have “failed” because others did not listen or follow their same beliefs are basing their “failure” on a self-righteous approach. “If I don’t convince you to believe what I believe, then I am not a good persuader”. On the other hand, If people simply share their beliefs and leave it like that (without hoping to convert anyone to a particular religion), then nobody would be a failure. We all teach each other based on our own personal experiences, not a dictated set of beliefs imposed on us while we were growing up. We are all learning to grow in this world, be it through religion, non-religion, or in between.

    • “We all teach each other based on our own personal experiences, not a dictated set of beliefs imposed on us while we were growing up. We are all learning to grow in this world, be it through religion, non-religion, or in between.”

      That’s such a great statement and sentiment. I couldn’t agree more!

      Thanks so much for reading!

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