“I am spiritual, but not religious”— How the “nones” can enrich religion in America

“I am spiritual, but not religious”— So goes the standard quip that I, along with countless clergy, serving in synagogues, churches and mosques across North America would hear when a seeker crossed the threshold of our sacred institutions in search of meaning in their lives. Recently, I was reminded by a respected senior theologian at a book signing together the wittiest response to this fallacy:

Spirituality is what you feel; Religion is what you do; and Theology is what you think.

As we both awaited customers to consume our wares, I wondered if something was not quite right with that response. If you don’t feel, do or think along these lines, then what happens to your relationship to the infinite? After all, about half of Americans say the growing number of “people who are not religious” is bad for American society. But a similar share say either that this trend is good or that it does not make much difference, according to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center. No matter whom you ask, there appears to be evidence of a gradual decline in religious commitment in the U.S. public as a whole. Unaffiliated or “nones” (no affiliation) is the fastest growing demographic: about one-fifth of the public overall – and a third of adults under age 30 – are religiously unaffiliated as of 2012; a third of U.S. adults say they do not consider themselves a “religious person”; and two-thirds of Americans – affiliated and unaffiliated alike – say religion is losing its influence in Americans’ lives. As is always the case the younger cohorts are less concerned than the elders about the negative impact of the nonreligious upon American society. (“Growth of the Nonreligious: Many Say Trend is Bad for American Society”, PEW Forum on Religion & Public Life, July 2, 2013).

One way to approach this conundrum is the polyannish path of T.M. Luhrman, positing in her recent op-ed that—

“If you can sidestep the problem of belief—and the related politics, which can be so distracting—it is easier to see… God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church.”  (T.M. Luhrman, “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith,” NY Times, May 29, 2013).

Luhrman’s point is that living a religious life amidst all its doubts and uncertainties is possible once the dogma of belief is bracketed from the larger playing field of faith. This requires being like a chameleon, such that I pray “as-if” all is good and garb myself accordingly around fellow pollyannish pray-ers who do believe, even though my belief is bracketed and my faith concealed.

Another way to approach this conundrum is the iconoclastic path of J. Kameron Carter who advocates for the need to take atheism seriously, but take note this is not—

“…the atheism of the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett or the late Christopher Hitchens. The atheism I’m talking about entails social, political and intellectual struggle, not against some god-in-the-abstract, but rather against a specific or particular god: the ‘American god’.” ( J. Kameron Carter, “Christian Atheism: The Only Response Worth its Salt to the Zimmerman Verdict”, Religion Dispatches, July 23, 2013).

Carter’s audacious iconoclasm smashes the idols of a racist god that has enveloped so much of America. Like Abraham in his father’s idol shop in rabbinic exegesis, Carter is advocating we do not lock up our social, political and intellectual struggles, but bring them to bare on a living relationship with a particular god in a given time and circumstance.

But Carter’s demands may be too much for a large swath of seekers in America today turning away from spirituality, religion and theology—today’s Raskolnikovs through and through. Todays “nones” are much like the anti-hero of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, the one who challenges his sister, Dounia and her unexamined piety. In turn, Dounia fears her brother has nothing left to hold onto in the hour of his greatest trial, save fear, if he confesses to murder:

“I haven’t faith, but I have just been weeping in mother’s arms; I haven’t faith, but I have just asked her to pray for me. I don’t know how it is, Dounia, I don’t understand it.”? (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, VI: VII:52).

How might today’s  Raskolnikovs— the Pew Jew “nones”— hold this paradox within their unconventional prayers?  To have no faith, but weep in your mother’s arms; to have no faith, but ask her to pray for you…

What I am suggesting is the need for another category in our opening discussion between two theologians sharing a table at their book signing. The generational divide between the younger and older cohort disagreeing on whether being nonreligious is bad for America, is the same divide in the assumptions these two theologians bring to what we do in prayer (religion) with what we think (theology) has to grapple with the grip atheism has on this generation. That is why I decided to start my session at that same conference on Judaism at the crossroads with the following statement about prayer that shocked most of the participants:

“Prayer today is broken. Unless we take this seriously,  there is no God. For prayer is not about God—prayer is God!”

In a different context entirely, while participating in a think-tank over the future of Jewish theology in America, participants were exposed to different guest theologians at some point during each day of the gathering. Amidst all the masterful thinking about God that came from accomplished theologians, I was utterly dumbfounded by one young theologian from Dublin named, Peter Rollins, who stayed with the group throughout the conference. When it came his turn to present on the theology he was formulating to reach this generation, he spoke passionately about his new book, How (Not) to Speak About God. My cynical inner voice said, “Oh here comes another Christian reformulation of Maimonidean ‘negative theology’ and Rosenzweig’s ‘A/Theistic Theology’!” Yet Peter’s sensitivity to the Christian tradition coupled with a nuanced understanding of postmodern thought, allowed him to offer an unprecedented message of transformation that has the potential to revolutionize the theological architecture of Western religion. This feisty, Irish theologian of the emerging church movement showed all the Jewish theologians in the room how to explore the theory and praxis of this contemporary expression of faith. Rollins began with theory and then unpacked his book that is divided into two parts: the first half is entitled, “Heretical Orthodoxy: From Right Belief to Believing in the Right Way”; while the second half is entitled, “Towards Orthopraxis: Bringing Theory to Church”. As a fellow theologian who also engages in creative ritual, I was most moved by Rollins’ discussion of how he applies critical theory to ritual, especially in his ritual for a/theism. In “Service 4: A/theism” the plethora of images affixed earlier are removed from the wall of his itinerant parish—the local pub, Ikon— and transformed through their erasure, as someone intones over the microphone on the stage: “Many of us have lost sight of the fact that a deeply religious form of atheism lies at the heart of Christianity.

This atheism is not one that rejects the idea that there is a source to the universe, no is it simply the rejection of gods different from our own. Rather, this faith-filled atheism is one which understands that the God we worship is bigger than all our imaginings.” (Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak About God, 100).  

I began to wonder in earnest—could Rollin’s “faith-filled atheism” speak to today’s Raskolnikovs? Would the nonreligious dare to drift back to institutions which until now have offered nothing but platitudes, hypocrisy and inauthenticity?

The last critique of inauthenticity seemed to strike a deeper cord inside my soul. In translating a recent book of mine from English to Hebrew, A New Physiognomy of Jewish Thinking: Critical Theory After Adorno as Applied to Jewish Thought (Resling Press, forthcoming), I recall the argument that ensued with my gifted but impetuous Israeli translator. As a philosopher studying for his PhD in Nietzsche at a prestigious university in the northeast, he argued for the all-too-common one-to-one relationship between “authenticity” and its correlate in Hebrew “authentiyut”, while I opposed this borrowing tendency and suggested the more spiritual expression from Hasidism of “emet l’amito” (literally, the truest truth). The translator’s argument hinged on the reality that secular Hebrew readers of theology and critical theory in Israel were becoming very used to this tendency to borrow terms from the Diaspora in languages like English and then (shamelessly) importing them into Israeli Hebrew, rather than grappling with and succumbing to an indigenous Hebrew. Even a literate society like Israel, rife with secularists yet ruled by the ultra-orthodox can at times cringe and recoil from the hold a hegemonic religious discourse has upon their lives and their lexicon. The same can be said about our theological gateways, and the need to open those gates further to embrace a/theisms and the nonreligious.

We urgently need to expand the conversation, so that the next time someone—especially an affiliated “none” — seeking out their authenticity challenges a theologian with the line: “I am spiritual, but not religious”; and the theologian dares to respond with:

Spirituality is what you feel; Religion is what you do; and Theology is what you think—there needs to be room for a fourth category of “faith-filled atheism” that will speak to today’s Raskolnikovs, to today’s “nones”.

The nonreligious need to know that there is space to challenge their a/theism and imbue it with a depth that reveals a concealed “faith-filled atheism”. Only then will today’s Raskolnikovs –the fastest growing demographic of the nonreligious in America—drift back into institutions daring to also offer doubt, integrity and authenticity to take hold of the project of renewing religion that will otherwise remain broken.





About the Author
Aubrey L. Glazer, Ph.D. serves as rabbi at Beth Sholom, San Francisco. Aubrey is the author of Mystical Vertigo: Kabbalistic Hebrew Poetry Dancing Cross the Divide (Academic Studies Press, 2013), A New Physiognomy of Jewish Thinking: Critical Theory After Adorno as Applied to Jewish Thought (New York: Continuum, 2011) and Contemporary Hebrew Mystical Poetry: How It Redeems Jewish Thinking (Edwin Mellen Press: New York, 2009).