How Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Can Help Religious Communities Understand the Rise of the Nones
by George Wielechowski
In the first episode of Fox and National Geographic’s recent reboot of Carl Sagan’s masterpiece of a book and television show from more than three decades ago, the host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, lays out the entirety of time over a one year calendar. Thirteen and three-quarter billion years prorated across an imaginary twelve months. The point of this exercise is to provide the viewer with some cosmic perspective.
The ancient empires of Rome, Egypt or Greece may feel eons old to us now, but within the framework of the history of the universe, every part of human history – from the emergence of a fairly hairless mammal who stood upright to walk on two legs nearly 3.5 million years ago, to the rise of an era where a large portion of that same species can speak out globally and instantaneously in 140-character digital bursts – all of it is taking place, Mr. deGrasse Tyson tells us, in the last 60 seconds, of the last hour, of the last day of the universe’s existential calendar.
There’s been a lot of chatter in the organized religious world of late around what to do about the “Nones.” And for good reason. These days, one-in-three people under 30, even if born to a religiously identified parent, are self-identifying as Nones – people who prefer to claim no religious affiliation or identification.
As an emerging religious leader (I’ll receive my rabbinic ordination in less then a year), I think I’m supposed to be scared by that. But as a person decently familiar with the story arc of world history, and someone who has an interest in the evolution of human cognition, I find myself cheering for the rise of the Nones.
For folks who see the world through the religious binary (you either are a religious person, or you are not), the Nones that travel this world – whether atheists, universal humanists, or those just indifferent to organized religions and their collections of dogma, literature, praxis and ritual – are lumped into a “Secularist” label that is, more likely than not, a pejorative one.
But when the term Secularism was coined, it was more of a parallel category to religion, one that deserved respect as an alternative meaning-making system for life’s journey. The British writer George Jacob Holyoake used the term in 1851 “to describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief. An agnostic himself, Holyoake argued that ‘Secularism is not an argument against Christianity [or religion], it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of [religion]; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.’”
As someone whose rabbinic training to date has largely focused on interreligious relations, and has watched this community of teachers and activists struggle over how to, or even whether to, engage the secularists among us in their community building and dialoging efforts, I’m reminded of a reality that is so very hard to face for most humans. In the lives we live and the work we do – in our norms around family, love, childrearing and sense of communal cohesion; or in our governmental and societal constructs, our cultural value sets and yes, absolutely in our religions – the present approach is only a temporary, transitional expression, an infinitesimal chronological snapshot of a never-ending process.
Our religious identifications and their importance in the arc of history may have dominated much of life, from the personal to the global-political, over the last 3000 years or so. But originally Mr. Sagan, a Jewish astrophysicist, and now Mr. de Grasse Tyson, are showing us that arguing that 3000 years is ancient, and that ancient “tradition” has a lock on access to ideas that make life worth living, is not only a bit narrow-minded, it actually short shrifts the fundamental value of theology and religious community – its plasticity of thought. On the contrary, what we currently identify as religious is a significant but very small blip in the journey of the human mind on its mission to try and make sense and meaning of its own existence and place in the universe.
This leads me to wonder, then, whether religious labels, with all their power to unify or divide people around particular takes on that mission to make meaning, will continue to carry the weight they’ve carried in their 3000-year version of everyone’s 15 minutes of fame? By some standard, aren’t they too just a transitional technology on the long mental and spiritual road we humans have travelled over these last 3.5 million years? I encourage you to try and point out a single normative approach to almost any topic or idea set in your lifetime that hasn’t experienced what feels to us like tectonic amounts of change in only the last 50 years. Family, marriage, gender, identity, democracy, race, courtship, education, science, even religion – the list is endless. Everything we see and experience as long-held, established ways of doing or being anything are in fact only transitions to the next way of doing or being.
Might the same be true of religion? Isn’t it possible that we are entering a space and time where the different collections of historical wisdom that focused on bringing meaning and purpose to our lives have outgrown their religious shells? If those of us who value religion so greatly could go to that mental place together, for just a moment, it might go a long way in helping us explain and positively reframe the dramatic rise of the Nones.
The secularists among us, and their burgeoning meaning-making systems, are in fact solidly grounded in a few thousand years of the primacy of religious thought (even if they don’t want to admit it). And in a what’s-good-for-the-goose-is-good-for-the-gander kind of way, those of us who hold identities bed-rocked in religious affiliation should entertain the possibility that secularists may have even surpassed what we call “religious” thought, through some significant cognitive and spiritual strides (even if the thought makes us squirm in our seats).
This doesn’t mean that those who are “not religious” are smarter than the rest of us. But it may mean that the building of our deeper selves, as we ride the endless expansion of the universe on our small planet, is beginning to require more than what our traditions have historically or thematically offered. This also does not mean, as many contemporary philosophers would have us believe, that God is dead. It means that Humanity is alive. And that religious thought and communities have opportunities before them, as promised to Abraham, as numerous as the stars in the sky.
Shouldn’t we then open our hearts, communities and dialogues to the secularists, the atheists, the universal humanists who are fully engaged in asking the same meaning-making, life-enhancing questions? Even if their sacred texts, communities of thought and means and methods of human interconnection differ from ours? I’m a young newcomer to the interreligious arena, and have much to learn. But my heart tells me the clear answer to this question is yes.
At the very least, we are cognitive and spiritual brothers and sisters walking our small part of the long journey that is the human experience. And as with most journeys, the diversity of one’s companions and the variety of conversations this diversity produces, is the crucial ingredient to making life on the road worth living.
George Wielechowski is a final year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He is currently Director of Communications for the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Maryland, and Co-Founder of Mosaicverse.com, a forthcoming online and interreligious, sacred text resource.