According to the recent study from the Pew Research Center, 22.8 percent of U.S. adults and 35 percent of millennials are religiously unaffiliated. The nones are by all indications a diverse group. Among the nones are all the familiar categories of unbelief or quasi-belief: committed atheists, agnostics, the “spiritual but not religious,” and active seekers.
In addition, there seems to be another, less familiar sort: people who don’t see the need to think about religious matters at all. Forty-four percent of the respondents to a 2011 Baylor University study reported spending no time whatsoever seeking “eternal wisdom,” and 19 percent replied that “it's useless to search for purpose.” In the same year, Lifeway, an evangelical research agency, found that 46 percent of those it surveyed never wondered whether or not they will go to heaven, and 28 percent reported that finding a deeper purpose in life wasn’t a priority for them.
This variety of “none” is more confounding and dismaying. It’s one thing to respond to atheists who think you have the wrong answers or seekers who think you might have part of a bigger answer, but what of those who think you are answering questions that don’t even need to be asked? Higher purpose? Eternal joy? Meh. It appears that for increasing numbers of young adults, religion, and Christianity in particular, might no longer be a live option.
This is new, and reading William James again reminded me just how new it is. In his 1897 essay “The Will To Believe,” James explained why, even in an age of doubt, Christianity remained a real, active option, that is, as he defined it, the subject of a live, forced, and momentous decision. Live, because deciding for or against it was obviously relevant and important; forced, because one either accepted Christianity or refused it—there was no getting out of the decision; and momentous, because, on the chance that God does exist, the decision would have eternal ramifications. Back then, even for a pragmatist like James, Christianity was the kind of thing you had to take a stand on. “Meh” wasn’t a feasible response.
James was defending his right to believe in God against the voices of high-minded scientific skepticism, the Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins of yore who would tell him that it’s foolish and intellectually lazy to believe what reason and data can’t demonstrate to be true. James basically offered an experientially based, psychologically attuned version of Pascal’s famous wager. Pascal’s version was about playing the odds: Either God exists or doesn’t. Decide for God and you get eternal life if you’re right and lose basically nothing if you’re wrong. Decide against God and you lose out on eternal joy if you’re wrong and gain basically nothing if you’re right.
Logical, but, as James saw it, not compelling unless your experience already supports belief. Otherwise, he wrote, it sounds comically irrelevant: “As well might the Mahdi write to us, saying, ‘I am the Expected One whom God has created in his effulgence. You shall be infinitely happy if you confess me; otherwise you shall be cut off from the light of the sun. Weigh, then, your infinite gain if I am genuine against your finite sacrifice if I am not.’” Meh.
Along with a host of theologians in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s wake, James turned from logical approaches like Pascal’s to the evidence of lived experience. James argued that some live options can’t be resolved by the intellect alone, and in those cases, waiting for compelling evidence means that you will miss out on the possible insights and benefits that can only come after the decision to believe. Either way, you face a risk, the risk of error or the risk of missing out on the fullness of truth. Which you choose depends on emotional preference, not reason.
In some quarters the Mahdi is more of a live option these days than Presbyterianism or Catholicism, but that’s beside the point. The point is that to the “meh” sort of nones, James’s option is just as dead as Pascal’s. For those who are too distracted to feel the need to seek eternal wisdom (and who are so drenched in relativism that they can’t find much meaning in other people’s experiences), experiential paths to faith are just as dead as logical ones.
How then to evangelize the “meh” nones? First of all, it’s beyond time to reintroduce the big questions into our classrooms: Who are we? Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? What is our purpose? How do we determine what is right and wrong? High school teachers and professors too often avoid such questions, maybe for the sake of respecting diversity and avoiding conflict, or perhaps out of the kind of sad postmodernism professionalism that echoes Pontius Pilate: “What is truth? What has that to do with real life?” James’s pragmatism is somewhat to blame. When we don’t live in search of a truth that is “out there,” our experience of life can shrink and shrivel until we no longer feel capable of grappling with anything of transcendental import.
Perhaps we can also appeal to something that seems common to the experience of millennials in particular. David Brooks recently said this of the nones: “I think people have a harder time committing. They are more autonomous, more individual, they have FOMO (fear of missing out) so they don't want to ruin any option, and that leads to a general era of de-commitment. People are walking away from political parties, from organized faith—they are just living more individually. And I think that's due to our inability to commit to things.”
Brooks credits a holy priest, Monsignor Ray East, with inspiring his search for character. Witnessing the Monsignor radiating peace and joy regardless of circumstance made Brooks realize that despite his accomplishments, he was missing out on something big. Brooks himself, through his own example, shows us how godly people turn FOMO to God’s purposes. Witness Pope Francis. Just look at the man. Everyone can see the joy and peace radiating from his face. That’s why he is the man of the moment, and why the secular press needs so badly to mold him in their image. We all want that joy and peace, but many people don’t want to admit the obvious fact that Pope Francis, like all holy men and women, represents a live, forced, and momentous option. Being that full of life, love, and joy requires a radical commitment, a big yes to some things and a big no to others. The nones need messengers whose presence makes it impossible to say “meh”—in other words, saints.
Molly Oshatz writes from Mountain View, California.