Nones on a Mission

Why I’m drawn to the religion of the Nones.

When I opened my door to retrieve the paper this morning, I found two nicely-groomed young men in white shirts and dark ties standing there. The black name tags that hung in their shirt pockets were blank.

“We’re missionaries from the Church of No Affiliation of Modern-day Cynics,” they said, brightly. “You might know us as Nones. We could have knocked, but we didn’t want to disturb you.”

Since the family was out, I invited them in to share their “message of The Resuscitation.”

You musn’t doubt, but I do. You must obey, but I can’t.

There wasn’t much of a message. They started by asking how I was doing. When I said I was fine, we all looked around the room for a bit, tapping our fingers on our knees and saying yep. I was relieved not to be the object of a sectarian harangue, but I had a lawn to mow, so I pressed them about beliefs so as to move the encounter along. Well, love, they said. Be nice. At some urging, they finally conceded they just don’t go to church. Plant a tree on Sunday, they said, a little excited at last.

“But,” I objected, “I’m a believing Mormon. I want to find a divine power that makes living more than existing, and this deep and abiding desire is, surely, a belief that I can find it. I want to discover that I am of that power, dependent on it, and also the thing on which it depends. And that dream is surely faith.”

You’ll fit right in, they told me. None-ism isn’t just for atheists anymore. At twenty percent of the American population, they went on, building steam, we’re all losing our religion, but not necessarily our faith. We’ve got Cagthostics, Everquizzical Questians, Anglican’ts, and Lutherain’ts. Even Choose, Maylims, Buddhifs, and Hindon’ts. One of them leaned forward.

“There are even some Nones in the New Religious Movements,” he said, furtively. “My cousin is a Why-ontologist.”

Go on and believe, they said. Hell, pray every day, if you want. We just can’t figure out why you’d sit in a room to let someone tell you for a couple hours every week that you aren’t right.

When it reassures me that all the questions have been answered, the church feels like someone else’s institution.

It was all so unconditional, so eager to affirm my own experience, I found myself thinking that I could really convert. You know that excitement that lurches when you see that everything could be different? When I asked the None missionaries — the Nonaries — how I would go about joining, they only shrugged. “Got a glass of water?” one asked. Turned out he was just thirsty.

My attraction to None-ism is not on account of failing belief, mind you. My religion has got some great and grand ideas that still hold a place in my willing imagination — our divine potential, eternal families, salvation in faith and works, God’s mutability. Some ideas are like paintings, with balance, color, radiance, and style. Ideas have aesthetic qualities, not to be dismissed as irrelevant to the ideas themselves. Beauty is truth, after all.

And I’m not so naive that I don’t see that organizations can be very effective conservators of resources. There’s no point denying that churches, mosques, temples, gurudwaras, and wherever else religiously-affiliated people gather, make places that serve the world in ways that the solitary philanthropist can’t. Even Bill and Melinda — who have money enough to pay the world’s population to be happy — went and formed a Foundation.

But my church has also harbored a parochialism that is increasingly at odds with the imperatives of my conscience. You can’t accept same-sex marriage, my affiliation tells me. But it seems like such a good idea. You must accept our male authority, it says. But it seems so stodgy. You musn’t doubt, but I do. You must obey, but I can’t. Churches too often act like we were made for the Sabbath, rather than the other way ’round.

Besides, I tire of the church’s assurance that my belief has arrived. I find the church on Sundays earnestly urging me to retire my confrontation with what seems dark and impenetrable in the cosmos. But facing the darkness feels to me like real faith. When it reassures me that all the questions have been answered, the church feels like someone else’s institution, and I wonder if what’s happened isn’t that the church has eliminated my position as a consequence of necessary cutbacks.

The Mormon congregation of my youth was peopled by university professors. My parents moved into a new suburb when my father took a faculty position at Brigham Young University during a moment of its expansion that put several other faculty in our neighborhood. Within a fews doors of each other were a dean of Botany (my scoutmaster), a chair of Germanic and Slavic Languages, a director of the School of Music, an English professor who was also a Rhodes Scholar, and a dean of Math and Physics (my dad). We all went to church together, weekly, in a congregation that taught me that natural law, experimentation, free thought, and creativity are God’s own character made available to humankind to help us search out truth. While in graduate school in Wisconsin, I was in a Mormon congregation with chemists and historians and bio-technicians and actors and engineers and economists and sociologists, and church was commonly a joyful noise of inquiry, objection, and discovery. That was my religion.

I miss those days. The church’s increasing exertions to plant my heuristic impulses at its own, predetermined ends undermines my discovery of the good word and saps my interest in the pursuit. Maybe I’m losing my religion because it’s getting harder and harder to find it in my church.

I’m still sitting in a pew for a couple hours every week, and I have a Mormon temple recommend in my pocket that I don’t plan to surrender, so I’m still plenty churchy. Irrational it may be, but nurturing sanctity in my world through prayer and ritual makes my life more lovely, even while I reject any institution’s determination to tell me what I believe. In fact, I resent the purely vindictive suggestion I sometimes hear from other Mormons that I’ve left the faith.

But I do find myself edging away from my affiliation’s wearisome cultural demands and drawing towards None-ism by a need for distance between my living belief and the institutional excesses that threaten it.

Checking “None” on the questionnaire keeps the institution from appropriating my identity for itself, while allowing institutional tradition to give my spirituality some necessary shape. In computer-speak, “None” allows the institution to operate, but not to panic my kernel. In the language of America’s secular idealism, self-identifying as “None” provides for a constitutional separation of church and faith.

Part Mormon. Part None.

I’m a MorNone.

David Mason
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  • dw1156

    Just this morning I thought about my final conclusion as a churchgoing Mormon. I decided I was in elementary and middle school and was taught by amateurs my entire life. I yearned for graduate school, and I wanted to be taught by people who knew the subjects to the same degree as a college professor.