Jesus & “The Nones”

Another interesting part of my conversation with Steve Knight and friends yesterday was about the increasing number of people who refuse to self-identify with any religious label. Steve’s question was what they (we) think about Jesus.

Over the past three years, I’ve spent a lot of time reading, listening to and talking with atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and “ex-church” people of all sorts. And, despite the common perception that atheists hate religion and think religious people are stupid and evil, this does not actually seem to be the case. Studies have also shown that many of the people who could be described as “nones” actually “believe in” a pretty traditional God. I’ve met many people who would still call themselves Christians and still use very traditional language about God and Jesus and so on, but do not want to be identified with the institution known as Christianity or “the church.” As usual, things are not as simple as we might assume or even want them to be. Who knew, people are complex?

But, one thing I have also picked up on is that when you actually ask most of the people who have rejected some institutional form of religion about Jesus, they like him. I can’t find it, but one example was an interview I listened to with Bad Religion. They are pretty well known as atheists and seem to get off on mocking religion. But, in the interview they were asked about Jesus, and they said they really respect Jesus and try to live their lives in line with his teaching.

Umm, what is going on here?

Many people see a lot of problems with an approach to spirituality that wants Jesus without the church. They’ve come up with witty phrases like “solo Christians” or describe us as entirely self-absorbed, individualistic, and so on. I think much of this is because of their own insecurities and jealousy due to investing so much time and energy in losing themselves for the greater good of a group (while claiming they’re “defending the truth”), but that’s besides my point.

As Diana Butler Bass has suggested recently, there is something sacred about a person owning his or her own spirituality. Rather than simply regurgitating the freeze-dried theology handed to us by our parents, we have gone through the difficult process of questioning and examining those ideas, and have decided for ourselves what we will think and do. Rather than being a form of weakness or selfishness, we have grown up, matured (as any good parent knows, if you don’t let your children make their own decisions, they will never become adults). Of course, returning to what our parents have taught us is not necessarily a bad thing (depending on what they taught us). But, I think it’s a much better state of existence to have gone through “the abyss” than to spend your life avoiding it.

So, what do “the nones” think of Jesus? I’m sure there are a lot of different opinions about who Jesus was (or is), and what that means. But, I don’t think we have rejected Jesus. We might not be comfortable with a lot of Christian language, but what if we’re actually “following Jesus” and just don’t know it? What if many of those who have rejected the Christian institution are actually embodying the Kingdom more so than those who have never questioned their faith? How can we who are more inclined to think and talk specifically about Jesus welcome and create space for those who aren’t? What if many of those who claim to be Christians have completely missed the point, and those who don’t are who God (if he/she/it exists) might be speaking to us through?

I could be wrong. But, this is the sense I am getting more and more every day. Are we listening?


This was reposted from my personal blog.

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25 thoughts on “Jesus & “The Nones”

  1. I think a lot of those you speak of are probably reacting to the sentimental version of “gentle Jesus meek and mild”, rather than Jesus as actually portrayed in the gospels (the only Jesus we have any information about), who, while he certainly has his good side, gets in a fearful bate when individuals – or whole cities – reject his claims, has a great deal to say about hellfire, shows considerable ethnocentrism, breaks up families, and treats his own mother with disrespect.

    • This is why I reject the “red letter” and fundamentalist readings of Jesus (on all sides). Rather than focus on the specifics (which, I agree, is a mess), I think that most people are at least attempting to live in the “spirit” of Jesus, the way of love. Not at the expense of the self (i.e. living “for” others), but rather, being oneself with others. And, seeking the best for everyone.

      • But you don’t have any information about the “spirit” of Jesus other than in the gospels – there’s just no other source. Given his cultural background, it seems probable that he would be completely gobsmacked – and indeed, horrified at the blasphemy – if he could know what had been made of his life and teachings since his death.

  2. I’m afraid I find the post you linked to both silly and insulting.

    What if, instead of learning and applying apologetic methods to convince people that “God exists,” we show people that when they love, or when they find hope in hopeless situations, or when they have the courage to go on, they actually are “believing in God”?

    No, I’m not; and I’ll thank you not to tell me that I am, when I know otherwise.

    • It might be silly, but I’m not sure how it’s insulting. We probably agree about the definitions of God that we don’t “believe in.” We just simply disagree about what kind of language is acceptable to use. My positive use of the word God doesn’t resemble the God of traditional or orthodox theism.

  3. It’s insulting to tell someone else how they should interpret their own experience, which is what you are doing.

    My positive use of the word God doesn’t resemble the God of traditional or orthodox theism.

    In other words, you are using the word in a way that is systematically misleading, since that is what the word means to the vast majority of English-speakers. You also appear either unwilling or unable to say what you do mean by it.

    • It’s insulting to tell someone else how they should interpret their own experience, which is what you are doing.

      I don’t think I said “should.” If I did, I meant could. It is not necessary, but may be beneficial to do so.

      In other words, you are using the word in a way that is systematically misleading, since that is what the word means to the vast majority of English-speakers.

      Yes, I am seeking to redefine the word God, along with many other people. I think it is a good word, worth keeping but redefining.

      Actually, I don’t think most people actually agree on a definition of God. If you get into the actual specifics about what God can or cannot do, what God might require, and so on, the perspectives are pretty diverse.

      You also appear either unwilling or unable to say what you do mean by it.

      I’m leaving the definition somewhat open. Personally, I have been influenced by how the word is used by radical theologians and Continental philosophers like Jack Caputo and Pete Rollins, process theologians, and integral philosophers. I think those large movements of thinkers and practitioners (more than a few people) have created a space beyond the either/or of “traditional religion versus anti-theism.”

  4. I don’t think I said “should.”

    I quoted what I was referring to above. I’ll quote it again:

    What if, instead of learning and applying apologetic methods to convince people that “God exists,” we show people that when they love, or when they find hope in hopeless situations, or when they have the courage to go on, they actually are “believing in God”?

    The claim made is that people are believing in God, when according to them, they are not.

    Actually, I don’t think most people actually agree on a definition of God. If you get into the actual specifics about what God can or cannot do, what God might require, and so on, the perspectives are pretty diverse.

    The vast majority of English-speaking theists and atheists would agree that “God” refers to a being with at least many of the attributes of a person, such as intentions and preferences, but one with superhuman powers, and independent of the physical world. That’s quite enough for a meaningful discussion of whether or not such a being exists.

    I’m leaving the definition somewhat open.

    No, you’re refusing to say what you mean by it at all. I’m not very interested in post-modernist dribble.

      • An already-fading pseudo-intellectual fad, which has allowed a number of talentless people to make a good living, but otherwise has produced nothing of any value. Actually, the people I see using its tropes most are creationists, who claim, quite falsely, that they just interpret the evidence differently from evolutionary biologists. Incidentally, the first of your links above goes nowhere, while the other two both go to the same interview with John Caputo.

      • An already-fading pseudo-intellectual fad, which has allowed a number of talentless people to make a good living, but otherwise has produced nothing of any value.

        Wow. That’s a pretty bold assessment of a movement that traces its roots back to Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and so on.

        I began a history degree at a public university here, and the professor’s approaches seemed unapologetically postmodern as well. Are entire history departments entirely misguided? Should they return the myth that history is linear and objective?

        And, I work for a mental health services agency which implements a lot of the insights from postmodern and existentialist thinkers. Is publicly funded mental health entirely misguided? Should they approach mental health solely through neuroscience? Is psychology dead?

        Again, it depends on who is interpreting the evidence. From my perspective, I see it flourishing and producing a lot of value. And, I’m obviously not alone.

  5. There’s a link in one of the comments to the Caputo interview to a piece by Noam Chomsky on (the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of) post-modernism. There’s practically nothing there I’d disagree with.

  6. OK, I’ve now listened to the Rollins talk. Meh. I don’t think he has anything worthwhile or insightful to say to an atheist who has not experienced a traumatic loss of religious belief (indeed, specifically Christian belief) beyond the truism that it’s good to try and see ourselves as others see us (Robbie Burns said it considerably more succinctly). He makes the entirely unfounded assumption that everyone’s religious, and that accepting that there’s no intrinsic meaning to life is in itself problematic.

    • Point taken. Rollins seems to primarily be speaking to Christians who are considering chunking the whole thing. For me, his work was really important. But, I agree, it’s probably not going to be perceived as “relevant” to every person.

      I’m not sure Rollins would claim that there is an intrinsic meaning to life? He seems to be pointing in the opposite direction. As an existentialist, claiming that meaning is created rather than found or given.

      • I wasn’t meaning Rollins thought there was an intrinsic meaning, but that he thought people in general found accepting this difficult. That’s one of the interesting points about Phil Zuckerman’s book: most of the Danes and Swedes he talked to (many of them “cultural Christians” who still marry in church, baptise their children etc. but don’t believe in God) just dismissed the whole range of issues of God/meaning-of-life/death as something they seldom or never thought about.

        I’ll stop commenting here now unless specifically addressed.

      • I need to check out Zuckerman’s books. But, I am assuming that I will still think that we’re merely talking about linguistic preferences. People might not use God language, but I think there are fundamentally human ideals that are universally true. I think John Caputo in his book On Religion better gets at the “religious” divide within humanity.

  7. Hmm, I’ll take your comment on 10th March at 3:32 pm as specifically addressing me!
    1) I don’t think who a movement claims as its intellectual ancestors can be used to defend it. The only one of the four you mention that I have any first-hand familiarity with is Marx; I think he’d have been apoplectic at the claims of pomo “thinkers” to his legacy. I did once try to read some Hegel, and would judge it to be the same sort of pointless word-salad as produced by pomos; I consider it a great pity that Marx never escaped his influence.
    2) I’m not sure what you mean by saying your history professor took a postmodern approach. Of course it’s entirely valid to broaden the range of sources used, particularly toward the less privileged, and to recognise that the sources we have are biased, but it’s still true that either event E happened, or it didn’t. There’s an ambiguity in the word “history”: it can refer either to what actually happened, which is objective, in the sense that either event E happened or it didn’t, and linear, in the sense that if E and F happened, they have a specific temporal relationship and if E preceded F, F can’t have had any causal role in producing E; or to what historians do, in which case they can try to be objective, in the sense of recognising that discovering what happened and why is difficult, and not letting their preconceptions determine their conclusions; or they can be propagandists.
    3) It’s just weird to claim that psychology as a whole is postmodernist (my first degree was in psychology); I certainly wouldn’t want to be treated by a mental health services agency that relied on postmodernist or existentialist ideas rather than evidence about what actually helps people. AFAIK, most forms of psychotherapy (CBT being an exception), have no such evidence base – but that for using SSRIs to treat depression, for example, is also pretty weak.

    • Maybe postmodernism is understood differently depending on ones perspective. I think the divide between Continental and analytic philosophy, for example, is not as clear as many of us assume. Likewise, many of the insights of postmodern thinkers (like Derrida, Heidegger, etc.) are being recognized outside of that bubble. We could go back and forth in defending or rejecting postmodernism, but we might just disagree about the helpfulness of the label.

      What you described as history, in my understanding, is a postmodern approach. A recognition that things did actually happen. But, that we can’t know with objective certainty exactly what happened and why. That we’re all biased and speaking from a perspective.

      I didn’t mean to imply that psychology as a whole is postmodernist. What I meant is that, in my understanding, the practice of public mental health seems to be more influenced by postmodern ideas than by modern ones. A consistently modern approach leads to scientism and nihilism (Alex Rosenberg seems to be on the few truly consistent ones around). But, the evidence, as I understand it, is actually pointing away from scientism.

      • Hmm, you do seem to be directly addressing me. Just let me know if you do want me to stop responding.

        We could go back and forth in defending or rejecting postmodernism, but we might just disagree about the helpfulness of the label.

        No, I really do think it’s all a load of worthless, and often dangerous andor mendacious crap. Including that well-known Nazi, Heidegger.

        But, that we can’t know with objective certainty exactly what happened and why.

        Very often we can know exactly what happened: German forces ordered by Hitler really did invade Poland on 1st September 1939 (and the alleged prior attack by Polish forces really didn’t happen). “Why” is more complicated, as there are generally multiple causes, but we do know, for example, that a lot of people died in Hiroshima on 6th August 1945 because an atomic bomb exploded there. “Scientism” is a more-or-less meaningless boo-word, while “nihilism” has too many meanings to be useful without specifying what you mean by it more exactly. And how could “scientism” – which if it means anything, must mean excessive trust in or reliance on science – be compatible with nihilism?

        That we’re all biased and speaking from a perspective.

        That’s hardly either a new or a profound insight.

        I assume I will still think that we’re merely talking about linguistic preferences.

        No, we’re not. People really do believe fundamentally different things, and have radically opposed goals and principles.

        I think there are fundamentally human ideals that are universally true.

        Such as? And how does this jibe with the supposed pomo opposition to “totalising metanarratives”, and to the idea of an essential human nature (I share the latter opposition but not the former)? (I’ve often thought there is actually no metanarrative more totalising than the pomo one, but here you seem to abandon it completely.)

        in my understanding, the practice of public mental health seems to be more influenced by postmodern ideas than by modern ones.

        In what way? And if you’re right, is there any reason to suppose that’s a good thing – i.e., actually helps people suffering from mental health problems? With some limited exceptions, such as phobias and OCD,
        which respond well to behavioural treatments (desensitization and CBT respectively), and some organic conditions such as brain tumours when they cause such problems, my impression is that we’re still pretty unsuccessful in treating mental health problems by any method, and usually the best that can be done is to give practical help to the sufferer and if appropriate their carers, and hope they get better with time.

      • Nick, you’re definitely asking some interesting questions, and making good points. I don’t see the need to ask you to stop (yet?).

        “Scientism” is a more-or-less meaningless boo-word, while “nihilism” has too many meanings to be useful without specifying what you mean by it more exactly. And how could “scientism” – which if it means anything, must mean excessive trust in or reliance on science – be compatible with nihilism?

        Rosenberg.

        People really do believe fundamentally different things, and have radically opposed goals and principles.

        It depends on what we’re talking about. When I encounter positive humanists and religious progressives, I have a hard time finding much difference. Yes, of course, there are huge differences between certain kinds of religious people and anti-theists, but, those two positions seem to be operating on the same level. For example, a question like “Does God exist?” Most fundamentalists will say, of course. Most anti-theists will say, of course not. But, there is a much more interesting conversation between those two positions.

        how does this jibe with the supposed pomo opposition to “totalising metanarratives”, and to the idea of an essential human nature (I share the latter opposition but not the former)? (I’ve often thought there is actually no metanarrative more totalising than the pomo one, but here you seem to abandon it completely.)

        I don’t think claiming the title postmodern necessarily requires one to agree 100% with everything every single postmodernist has claimed. From my perspective, a postmodern approach says that “totalising metanarratives” have a tendency to oppress people, but this isn’t necessarily so. I think that we all operate out of a primary narrative (whether we admit it or not) – it’s unavoidable. But, rather than chunk the idea that we do, we should hold on to our preferred narrative in a different way. It’s admitting our finitude. Epistemic humilty. A minimalist metaphysics.

        I’m sorry if I’ve been unable to justify some of my claims which would seem to satisfy your preferences.

  8. Thanks for the Rosenberg link – I hadn’t come across him. There’s a lot there I disagree with, but most of it’s not relevant here. Perhaps the most relevant is that he’s wrong in looking for intentionality in brain-states, and, not finding it there, concluding it doesn’t exist: intentionality describes aspects of the ongoing relationship between brain, rest of the body, and external world (see Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind). In the sense he uses “nihilism” – as meaning there is no objective morality – then I see it is compatible with “scientism” as he uses the term (I think it’s the first time I’ve seen that term “owned” by anyone). But as far as I can see, a “consistently modern approach” (although I’m not clear quite what you mean by that) doesn’t logically lead to the latter; and I’m not sure it leads logically to the former. For information, I espouse nihilism in Rosenberg’s sense (but not in the sense that there are no intentions, or that life is not worth living, or that morality is arbitrary), but not scientism. But in any case, if a “consistently modern approach” is actually correct, and does lead logically to those conclusions, then those conclusions are true.

    When I encounter positive humanists and religious progressives, I have a hard time finding much difference.

    I don’t identify as a humanist, but I don’t find any problem working with religious progressives for shared political or humanitarian aims. But I find a lot of their beliefs ridiculous and their preoccupations tedious; and I consider that even progressive religion is irrational, and gives “cover” to more obviously harmful forms of it by making irrationality (in the guise of “faith”) respectable.

    For example, a question like “Does God exist?” Most fundamentalists will say, of course. Most anti-theists will say, of course not. But, there is a much more interesting conversation between those two positions.

    What conversation? Why do you find it interesting? Would you say the same about the question “Do leprechauns exist?”?

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