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Researchers say I’m a None.
They’re correct, technically. I’m a fundamentalist Christian turned atheist and I’m under 30. But the lives represented by the data are far more complicated than numbers can really express.
I’m here to tell you about mine.
At five, I told my parents I wanted to be saved because I’d just seen Star Wars and thought Darth Vader lived in the shadows of my bedroom. Jesus, being omniscient and notably hard to kill, seemed the strongest candidate to protect me from Darth Vader, so I ran to my parents to tell them I understood that I was a hell-bound sinner in need of rescue.
My parents homeschooled me, then sent me to Christian school and then, finally, to a tiny public high school in Appalachia that didn’t deviate much from the evangelical script. The wildest moment of my adolescence involved crowd-surfing at a Skillet concert, and the second wildest was convincing my parents my Catholic boyfriend was really born again.
At sixteen, I got expelled from Christian high school. The reason, they said, was that I was a disturbing influence on the other students. This makes me sound far more interesting than I actually was then, or am now — like I’d committed arson or criticized George W. Bush. But the truth is that I’d become depressed and sought treatment. My Bible teacher, a proud graduate of Pensacola Christian College, took advantage of the situation to announce to my class that “brain problems” simply didn’t exist.
Later, I attended a conservative Christian college, Cedarville University. Cedarville is where I first heard of the Nones. As a student journalist, I interviewed Gabe Lyons, who worked alongside David Kinnaman to produce a Barna Group study on Millennial Americans who leave the church.
Lyons and Kinnaman found that 91 percent of young non-Christians and 80 percent of their church-going peers considered Christianity anti-gay. Eighty-seven percent of non-Christians found the church “too judgmental,” and 85 percent found it “hypocritical.” Significant majorities called the church “old-fashioned” (78 percent) and “too involved in politics” (75 percent).
Those results didn’t surprise me. By the time Lyons came to campus, I’d already spent years listening to Christian fundamentalists (with a few exceptions) rail against gays, gender equality, and anything else deemed inappropriately “postmodern.” The anti-intellectualism chafed.
I approached that interview with more than a little trepidation; at the time, I was immersed in my own spiritual struggle, which resolved itself a few months later in my total de-conversion from the Christian faith. I became one of Barna’s prodigals — and one of Pew’s Nones.
It’s been seven years since the release of Barna’s poll and roughly six since my de-conversion. In that span, a succession of studies have provided a more thorough glimpse into the beliefs, practices and experiences of the Nones.Researchers have discovered that although Millennials are the least religious generation, most still harbour positive feelings toward religion and believe religion has a role to play in public society.
Those facts seem to contradict each other. And that may explain why, amidst the avalanche of research, I’ve found that stories like mine are often obscured by ideological factions bent on spinning the results to their favor.
My fellow atheists seem particularly pleased by a 2012 study by Pew, which revealed that a record one-third of all adults under 30 reported no religious affiliation at all. Some so-called New Atheists rushed to claim that as a victory. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, announced, “If you don’t have a belief in God, you’re an atheist. It doesn’t matter what you call yourself.” New Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett publicly declared, “We gave [the unaffiliated] permission to declare their lack of interest in religion . . . and we have significant numbers of converts on our tally sheets. We get e-mails from them all the time.”
But they’re missing the point. This trend isn’t about conversion or de-conversion; most unaffiliated Americans aren’t even atheists. This trend is about dogma.
The Milliennials who’ve left evangelical Christianity are the children of the Moral Majority. We’re Generation Joshua, raised on a steady diet of Ken Ham’s science, David Barton’s history, and Jerry Falwell’s ethics. Even Millennials who weren’t raised in this subculture lived in a society shaped by its influence.
That should help you understand why a recent survey of Millennial beliefs showed that although most say they don’t look to religion, they do still talk to God. Young, unaffiliated Americans aren’t as willing to accept the rigid ideological categories preferred by their elders.
And here, again, my life is a data point.
Although I don’t hesitate to call myself what I am — an atheist — I haven’t found a home in organized atheism. Rather, I’ve found that it’s prone to the same foibles I witnessed in the American Christian church. There’s a similar tendency to comprehensively disregard different perspectives: Belief in God is irrational, so obviously nothing good can come from religion. But this dichotomy can’t account for the progressive people of faith I count among my friends — just like the fundamentalism of my childhood, rigid atheist ideology fails to describe reality.
I’ve also witnessed within atheism rampant sexism and other forms of prejudice directed at marginalized groups, all justified thinly with a non-theistic veneer. Of course, there’s more to organized atheism than this, just as there’s more to Christianity than what I witnessed personally.
The Nones get this. We’ve seen that the movements vying for our membership suffer the same difficulties, and we wonder what benefit there is joining any of them. While we wonder, we wait in no man’s land as culture war rages all around us, and we consider our options.
Our reluctance to categorize ourselves isn’t born of apathy or confusion. Instead, we’ve rejected the idea that there’s nothing positive to be found in other points of view, that different perspectives should be avoided, or at least derided when encountered. We prefer nuance to dogma.
My life is just one statistic out of thousands. But it tells me Christians and atheists alike could learn something from me, and from the Nones.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.