Leaving the pulpit was like exiting any bubble — we all inhabit them — and finding myself in somewhat unfamiliar territory. Until then my working years had been punctuated by religious holidays, my weeks measured by their Sabbaths and my days largely filled with pastoral activities. To be sure, the pews were rarely filled to capacity but they also weren’t empty. There seemed a natural cohesiveness to it all, a sense of “everyone is on board”. It’s been decades now and I’m in a very different place.
What struck me early on was that in this regularly proclaimed “religious country” many people outside the bubble had at best a tangential relationship to religion, much more so than I could have imagined. It wasn’t that I ever deluded myself into thinking everyone is religious, but rather the realization that being religious was far from a given or even necessarily the norm. Perhaps more surprising was finding myself traveling down the same road. This was somewhat of an eye opener since I hadn’t left the rabbinate for loss of faith, but simply wanted to do something different with my life.
Over the years my awareness of and interest in people’s living without or beyond religion became more acute. I saw my own evolution, a distancing from religion in my own children, family members and of course among those with whom I came into daily contact. It had nothing to do with having grown up Jewish or Christian (the people I encounter most). It was birth-faith agnostic. My interest became more serious about six years ago when I started sketching out a book on the subject, one that seemed not to have been written by others. What began as an impression that more individuals were moving from religion grew into a conviction, sustained in the release of Pew’s 2008 Religious Landmark Survey. As noted in previous posts, Pew found that 16% of us were saying, “none” when asked about their faith and that number shot up to 25%, 1 in 4, among those 18-29. That’s a number one can’t ignore.
Most stunning, the “none” group had doubled – 100% — in just a decade. We’re talking here about 50 Million Americans. To put this in a larger context, 16% is the same number as Latinos, considered our fastest growing demographic. But they have grown only 33% in a comparable ten-year period. Add to that my own experience with consumer research, which would suggest that if anything Pew’s number likely understates the reality. Against the backdrop of being told that ours is a religious country, you can expect some respondents to either feel intimidated or engage in wishful thinking. “Are you keeping on your diet, or going regularly to the gym?” Of course! Even if we accept the reported number, 16% is significant, second only to Christians in Pew’s landscape.
Since I began this journey, a number of best selling books came to market, all written by what I would describe as public atheists. Each made a compelling case for their collective cause, and that’s exactly what it seemed to be. Somehow they missed the bigger picture, and the far bigger story. For the most part Pew’s 16% are not ideological and they certainly aren’t angry — living without religion is not a cause. They neither disdain those who follow religion or, for that matter, do they give much thought to religion any more. The latter is probably a mistake.
Part of my challenge in writing on this subject was coming up with a better name for all of these people. “None” certainly isn’t helpful. Who am I? None — right. To me, even worse is the widely used descriptor “nonbeliever”. Not only does that assume religion as the default, it implies (meant that way or not) that those who don’t believe in a god don’t have beliefs. I see it a pejorative. Of course those who live beyond religion have beliefs, they are just a different set with a different grounding. So I came up with the name “transcenders”, people who have transcended to another place. It isn’t prima fascia a better place than those who follow religion but the right place, even an excellent place, for them.
Out of this comes my book, Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars. While hopefully telling a compelling story that will resonate with many readers, it seeks neither to proselytize nor to dismiss the religious. It speaks with conviction, but rejects out of hand the notion that anyone possesses the truth, a claim often made by both followers of religion and by some atheists. I believe that my take on this very important phenomenon is different from what has been offered by others. Most important, the fastest growing group in this country, a large percentage whom are our children, demands our serious attention.
Transcenders: available exclusively as a Kindle e-book.