Mary Donovan, one of the Catholic Volunteers here in Buffalo blogs on occasion and she recently told this tale describing a provocative topic in one of the citizenship classes at the refugee center where she works.
To me, the most interesting thing that happened was when we talked about freedom of religion and what it means—freedom to practice any religion you choose or to choose not to have a religion.
While I was pondering how I’d missed ever learning about John Jay in my seventeen years of formal (I swear I’d never heard of him until yesterday), there was a young man who was pondering something much deeper. He was maybe a year or two younger than I am and sitting directly across the table from me. He was frowning and he said, “excuse me, teacher, there are people who have no religion?”
“Yes, some people don’t have any religion,” said the woman teaching the class.
“No religion? None at all? How can that be? How do they live?”
I think I was nearly as surprised by his his confusion as he was that some people don’t have a religion. I was also sad because of how confused and sad he looked. He kept shaking his head and after the class had moved on, he said quietly, “I didn’t know it was possible not to have a religion. How is that?”
His neighbor—a lady who was probably about his mother’s age—said, “why don’t you ask them?”
“Oh,” he said, “I’ve never met anybody like that.”
Even though I didn’t know how he could live in the United States for at least five years and not realize that not everyone is religious, I could imagine the confusion he felt. After I thought about it for a little bit, I found myself sharing some of his wonderment: I understand not believe in anything specific or having any particular religion, but I find it hard to imagine not having any type of spirituality. When I look at the beauty of nature or witness someone doing something truly kind for another human being I don’t know how anyone could look at that and see only a beautiful coincidence.
Agreed. And I can remember as a child not knowing anyone who didn’t have a religion. Even secular Jews seemed more religious to me then. I do remember most people being nominally religious in my neighborhood. Our parish once had a special mass for an important parish feast day and I remember my friend Drew, who lived next door had also become an altar boy in a neighboring parish. I asked him if he had to go to mass on this particular feast day that fell on a Tuesday. His astounded mother screamed at me, “FOR WHAT?! Why would he have to go to mass on a random Tuesday?”
I guess we were the “religious” family in the neighborhood. I served at mass often. Early weekday mornings and evening benedictions. Sunday was a must and I can’t quite remember not going to mass.
Today, people seem much more irreligious than ever before. Some are this way for good reasons, eschewing the baggage that religion sometimes gives to people in favor of a healthier outlook. Some have been abused by religious professionals and they dump it all together because they can’t bear to go back.
But by and large, most people, especially young people, seem indifferent to religion, but open to some sense of spirituality. Some define themselves as “humanists” and think religion, in general, is a bad thing, or simply a bunch of hokum. Others think religion is mind control. Most, sadly, just haven’t had a good experience with religion, at least not enough to crave prayer in community settings, preferring the vertical relationship between God and self to the horizontal relationship between self and the community where God lives and moves and has being.
With larger numbers becoming “nones” (meaning they don’t subscribe to any religion), I wonder what religion’s future might be. I don’t see it going away entirely, nor do I see many of those who have chosen to stay away, staying away for good. Many find their way back to some kind of religious community eventually.
The bigger question might be “Why do some choose unbelief? And why do others simply choose to not practice?”
There’s two questions for today. So chime in, especially if you don’t believe in anything or you simply aren’t a regular attendee.