Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about nones, i.e. people who when asked “what religion are you affiliated with” answer “none.” As I have listened to their stories, I have concluded that their complaint is usually not about God. Most often it’s with “the church.”
Some of their stories include specific congregations in which they were abused in some way—physically, theologically, emotionally.
But most of their stories are about what I’ll call outgrowing the church. They’ll say that they went to Sunday school or attended a parochial school and that when they were kids, that was fine. But now that they are adults what they learned as a child either no longer makes sense or counters values they’ve acquired along the way or seems to not help them deal with reality anymore.
To put it another way, these nones are not Bantu tribesmen 200 years ago who have never experienced Christianity in any way. On the contrary, most nones have a lot of experience with the Christian church, and it is precisely from their experience with religion thatt they’ve concluded that it is irrelevant at best and abusive at the worst.
When we’re little we tend to view reality the way our parents do. As we mature we acquire different lenses through which we can view our experience and different points of view from which we are enabled to see that reality has different sides.
So, for example, a kid who grows up in a strict congregation in which the world is divided up into those who are clearly identified as being saved and those who are not, might decide to rebel a little bit in college—because that’s what people who are that age do—and attends a Buddhist meditation session. And, as he learns how to breathe and clear his mind, he experiences a calmness that he never felt during the half hour marathon sermons in which the preacher routinely used the threat of hell as a motivational technique.
The young man’s rebellion, therefore, would lead him to find a different place from which he could look at reality—a different lens if you will—and he asks himself, “Why didn’t anyone show this to me when I was growing up?”
Most of us, at one point or another, leave the womb of the relatively homogeneous culture in which we were raised and reach a point where its limitations are clearly visible.
And when those limitations become apparent to us, we might react with disillusionment—i.e. letting go of our illusions—or in the worst cases, identifying the source of the pain we’ve been experiencing but couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.
So what am I to do? I grew up in a church which was not abusive. Neither was it irrelevant. It is therefore easy for me to get defensive when I hear a lot of negativity coming from nones when the subject of religion is brought up. The problem is that when I respond from that place, communication shuts down, because I seem to be denying the reality of their experience.
What I need to do is be willing to listen and accept words I have a hard time hearing in order to establish enough trust in the relationship for the person to whom I am in conversation to get to a safe place where he or she might be able to hear my words, which up till now have been associated with irrelevance or even pain, in a new way and from a different point view. In other words, it’s the very same process which led to their original disillusionment.
No guarantee that they’ll see it my way, but at minimum, we’ve established a civil relationship which as time goes by might increase in trust.