The Quiet Revolution
I was born in a place where the atmosphere had no oxygen. Where organized religion was, and still is, the substitute for air, water, food, and the social contract. Lebanon, my birthplace, is a country like no other: a black hole of multiple religions and sects coalescing into a hot pot, which is at a permanent boiling point. To the religiously unaffiliated, this represents a double-edged sword: silence or safari. I chose the latter.
Warning: what you are about to read in this essay is like Buckley’s cough medicine: it may leave you with a bitter taste, but never mind, it is the truth, and it works! And if you like surprises, then keep reading as a fresh dawn awaits you and a new path beckons you to experience the steps of genuine growth, personal liberation, and self-discovery away from the dictation of tradition, authority, and historical myths. Do you dream of being you? Then welcome to the narrative of the religiously unaffiliated.
“I look on the church as a field hospital after a battle,” said Pope Francis, he of the Vatican.Life is a battle. We all get injured one way or another, physically or spiritually. Thus religion, properly understood and practiced in light of Pope Francis’ message, is eternally needed. However, when it strays off course and becomes entangled with running the administration, treasury, office politics, security, and all other departments of the hospital, then it (church/mosque/synagogue) becomes like any other business striving for profit, power, and permanency.
Thus come the “Nones.”
The central theme of this essay is to explore the concept of the Nones—the religiously unaffiliated—who they are and how the Nones are quietly revolutionizing religious thinking and redefining organized religion. They represent a compromise between being atheists or agnostics, and holding on to a pure faith—one unadulterated by an organized church’s often obsession with politics, power, and money. The obvious question is: Why write on the Nones phenomenon? Simply stated, because they are on the rise; rapidly forming the fastest growing “nonreligious” creed in the world today. They are independent in their thinking, spiritual but not dogmatic, and challenging organized religion quietly but effectively. Curiously, they are off the radar socially, politically, and religiously, with few books and studies about them, and also because they matter a great deal to the future of spirituality, social cohesion, and political life. They represent a tsunami of social change that has yet to be recognized and understood.
This essay examines the relationship between religion and history, myth, morality, and the changing landscape of organized religion in a secular age. It also surveys the surprising rise of the Nones—a term used to identify those who answer the question “What is your religious affiliation?” by saying that they have no particular religious attachment and those who are distrustful of and deserting organized religion.
My own perspective on this significant subject is colored by my background and history. I was born in Lebanon in 1958, lived part of its war and sectarian violence, which engulfed the country from 1975 to 1990. The “Lebanese War” was a prelude to what the world is witnessing today in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, where domestic, regional, and international factors all coalesce to create failed states and civil disintegration. Lebanon has officially 18 religious sects all competing for power and dominance and where building a genuine nation-state has been a fleeting enterprise since its independence from France in 1943. Later I moved away from Lebanon and came to Canada and attended Carleton University, and have been living in Ottawa since 1980. I experienced the Orient (the greater Middle East), and I am living in the West. This exposure to various clashes of cultures has given me the perspective to provide a spirited defense of the Nones and their place in both the West and the East—two solitudes that have long been in a love-hate relationship.
The Nones exist in greater numbers in the West and Asia, but are hardly present or visible in the mysterious Orient. The abuse of religion in the Orient is abundant—as I know from my personal experiences, and everyone knows from the daily news. In many ways this essay endeavors to redefine organized religion, and to challenge both its many dogmas and its claim to have a monopoly on morality.
Are you sick and tired of the corruption in some institutions of organized religion around in the world? Are you yearning for a spiritual experience without being dictated to and manipulated by authority figures of dubious nature? If so, then this essay is for you.
Are you a person who is engaged, who values factual evidence and is not afraid to challenge accepted dogma, conventional wisdom, or societal prejudices? Are you an ethical, moral person who plays by the rules, respects humanity, cherishes tolerance and competing views and visions without the cover and umbrella of organized religion? Are you a None—no religious affiliation—person without realizing it? If so, then this essay is for you as well.
Confessions Without Shame!
I was an altar boy for many years during my childhood at St. Elias Orthodox Church in a small village in Lebanon called Kfar Mechki. Instead of being a venue for religiosity, it worked in an opposite direction as a kind of vaccination. But when it comes to spirituality, morality, and ethics, I am as “religious” as could be. That, however, comes as a result of our human experience, literature, and application of reason. (I like surprises, however, and I am still open for persuasion, especially regarding an infinitely powerful maker who created the cosmos but does not interfere with human affairs.)
The priest was a mini-God to the village people. When the patriarch of the church used to come on a special occasion, the men were competing and clamoring to kiss his hands—“dirty or not”—while the women used to walk with their heads down, passing him by as if in shame and not belonging among men or in the presence of God’s representative on earth.
I used to hear as well the call to prayer coming from the Muslim quarter in the neighboring villages traveling with the winds of Lebanon through its ancient land with its never-ending troubles and disoriented inhabitants. But neither prayers nor church/mosque-going stopped the war from coming and made the “pious” any more peaceful or civilized in a war that destroyed, and is still destroying, lives, land, and generations of young and old alike.
social tsunami is sweeping through Canada, U.S.A., Europe, Asia, and many parts of South America—except the Middle East and North Africa—without fanfare, fire, or fatalities.
The rising tide of the “Nones”—the religiously unaffiliated—is a historic phenomenon that needs to be explored and explained since it is of great consequence to our spiritual, social, and political future.
In my 2012 book, titled None of the Above: How the Unaffiliated are Redefining Religion and Keeping Faith, I explored in-depth the core characteristics, provided social science statistics, and looked at various vital aspects of this modern social tide.The unaffiliated are those people who identify themselves with no organized religion, and who answer the question of official surveys and casual inquires “What is your religious affiliation?” by: None of the above. The Nones exist among the married, widowed, divorced, and never married. Nones exist among liberals, conservatives, and independents, and in fact, they are colorless, classless, gender-neutral, and international in scope, except in the Middle East and North Africa. (Current world events show why.)
The unaffiliated are a quiet revolution growing steadily in the dark and slowly revolutionizing religious thinking and challenging organized religion like never before.
“It is not that the Nones have no religion. Rather, no religion has them,” wrote professor Tom Sherwood from Carleton University, who also is a United Church minister. The Nones embrace philosophical and theological beliefs that reflect skepticism rather than overt antagonism toward religion. They are that bridge between ancient religious dogma and obdurate traditions, and modern emphasis on the value of scientific inquiry, rationality, and the principles of the Enlightenment.
Consider, for instance, these striking statistics from the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life project of 2012:
There are more than 1.2 billion people in the world who are unaffiliated, or about 17 percent of the global population. This makes the Nones the third-largest religious group worldwide, behind Christianity and Islam, and equals the world’s Catholic population.
About 22 percent of the U.S. population, 29 percent of Canadians, and 28 percent of Europeans say they have no religious affiliation.
Most of the Nones live in the Asia-Pacific region, comprising more than three-quarters (76 percent) of all the unaffiliated in the world.
In the Middle East/North Africa the unaffiliated account to about 1 percent of the population.
The unaffiliated, moreover, are not anti-religion. Sixty-eight percent of them believe in God, and more than 51 percent pray on a regular basis. They believe in the Enlightenment principles of the eighteenth century. Nones are more accepting of human evolution than the general population. They would like the wall of separation between church and state to remain, if not erected higher and wider. The unaffiliated do not seem interested in religious rites of passage, such as baptism, religious marriage, or religious funerals. They are, however, spiritually hungry and morally responsible, as they value what real religious institutions do for society and for the poor in the form of charity work and community cohesion.
The central question is: What is behind the growth of the religiously unaffiliated? Generational replacement has been the driving force behind the rise of the Nones. The Pew Research Center offers four theories as possible explanation for the Nones’s rise:
Political backlash: The Nones are a counter-statement against the rise of the Religious Right, especially in the U.S. The younger generation view also religion as “judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.”
Delays in marriage: Because surveys show that married couples with children tend to be more religious, the delays in marriage contribute to the rise of the Nones.
Broad social disengagement: This theory contends that there is a general decline in “social capital,” and people are less engaged in civic duties and care less about public affairs.
Secularization: We live, by and large, in a secular age. The more prosperous a society is in terms of education, health, wealth, and stability, the less religious it is. (The U.S.A. is cited as an exception to this rule; however, things are changing.) The opposite is true as we can see from the state of affairs in the Middle East and North Africa.
Why we should all welcome the rise of the Nones? Simply stated, because they are the way for the future. They are the fastest growing “nonreligious” creed in the world, comprising about 17 percent of the human race. In fact, they might represent the second coming of the Enlightenment in their emphasis on rational thinking, scientific inquiry, and respect for science, independence of thinking and dislike for religious dogma, its obduracy on many social issues, such as homosexuality, rights of women, political noninterference, and the obsession with power for the sake of power.
“Consider the idea that the real essence of truth is Authority—that is, what is true is whatever God, or the King, or the Party commands or accepts. That is a deductive definition, one that still lurks in the background of many people’s worldviews. It has also been used over the centuries to stifle dissent and change,” wrote Michael P. Lynch, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut.The Nones are trying and succeeding in changing that destructive worldview. Come and join this march to freedom.
Article Author: Elie Mikhael Nasrallah
Elie Mikhael Nasrallah, born in Lebanon, graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa, with an honours degree in political science. He has written three books: “My Arab Spring, My Canada,” 2012, “None of the Above,” 2014, “Hostage to History,” 2016. He writes from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.