The Highly Religious “Nones”

Just what is that telling line that is often spoken by today’s “nones?”

“I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Over the years, I’ve heard those very words many a time.

In all likelihood, it’s not a deliberate lie to say that one is spiritual but not religious. In fact, “nones” who resort to this self-description may well believe that they are being entirely accurate. But are they?

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A more accurate, not to mention more telling, line from a fully self-aware “none” might go something like this: “I’m really not very spiritual at all, but I am highly religious.”

What does it mean to be spiritual? For that matter, what does it mean to be religious? Webster tells us that being spiritual has “something to do with the spirit or soul,” while spirituality is a “devotion to spiritual things instead of worldly things.” Finally, a “quality of being spiritual” translates to a condition of being “neither corporeal nor material.”

And religious? It can and does mean many things, from a “belief in God or gods” to being “pious, devout, strict, exact, scrupulous,” and so on.

Do any of these definitions accurately capture any of the modern, materialistic “nones” of your acquaintance? If so, you have not encountered any of the “nones” of my acquaintance, casual or otherwise, let alone the “nones” in my family, immediate or extended. None of the “nones” I know anything about are remotely spiritual, but all are highly materialistic.

In other words, none of my “nones” would actually qualify as pagans in good standing. After all, a good pagan truly was spiritual—and religious. None other than G.K. Chesterton certainly thought so.

In Chesterton’s day it had become “customary” to say that “modern youth” were pagans. But he remained unconvinced. The real trouble with the young, as he saw it, was not that they were pagans but that they had somehow shed any “vestige of paganism.” The same might be said of today’s “nones.”

Already by that point, 1932 to be precise, Chesterton had concluded that his version of the “nones” had not lost their Christianity—because the “sober truth of the matter” was that most of them never had any Christianity to lose in the first place.

This, he hastened to add, was not necessarily the fault of the young, but it surely was their “misfortune.” In other words, insofar as Chesterton was concerned, the basic problem was not that the young had lost their Christianity but that they had “lost their paganism.”

After all, as Chesterton reminded his readers, to a real pagan wine was always more than wine; “it was a god.” And corn was always more than corn; “it was a goddess.”

To be sure, the ancient pagans were not Christians, or at least not yet Christians, but they were spiritual—and they were religious. As such, they were never satisfied with—or by—mere materialism.

And today? Chesterton, of course, is no longer with us. But his words and thoughts are. His “wish” should be our wish: if only his “rebels” (and our “nones”) could actually be trusted to be “good, hearty pagans.”

Instead, his “rebels” and our “nones” have somehow learned to be content to live their lives under the “strange delusion” that “eggs are simply eggs” or that “wine is nothing more than wine.”

What might be done about ridding society of such delusions, he wondered? Perhaps missionaries might be dispatched among the young to convert them to paganism, he joked.

Or was he simply joking? Chesterton, after all, was known to make a joke in order to make a point. And here his point—and his concern—was that the problem even then was “very deep indeed.”

And the problem faced today by America in particular and the West in general is much, much deeper.

So, is there a solution short of pagan-trained missionaries among hordes of pre- or post-pagans? Maybe, just maybe, the “nones” are already grasping at some form of paganism with their claims of spirituality.

And maybe, just maybe, their strict religious practices will eventually help lead them toward paganism as well. After all, the environmental movement is essentially a religious movement, complete with religious practices and religious demands, not to mention apocalyptic visions and conclusions.

At this point in Western history, the entire project of the Left is a substitute for conventional religion. To be sure, it is a secular religious movement, but a highly religious movement nonetheless. The goal is not to achieve individual salvation but to create a heaven on earth instead.

For the time being, or at least for this historical moment, much of America’s youth have lost what Chesterton thought that the youth of England had lost long ago—namely, any sense of the “critically important tradition of heathenry.”

Having cut themselves off from the “truths that come to the sensitive in silence,” they had lost any awareness of the “atmosphere that surrounds every object that is almost visible, like a halo.” As a result, they had lost the sense that there is something in and about our world that is “more real than realism.”

Is there any possibility of recovery from such a loss short of sending missionaries to minister to the losers? While it might (but shouldn’t) be surprising to learn, Chesterton thought that there was. What was not surprising to him was that the youth of his day knew next to nothing about “historical Christianity.” Nor was it surprising to him that some among the young were “so innocent” that they were actually beginning to “get in touch with orthodoxy without even knowing that it is orthodoxy.” And why not, he concluded, because that was precisely what had happened to him! 

So perhaps the day will come when large numbers of “nones” will recover what they have lost. The process, no doubt, will be very gradual. After all, it will take time, perhaps even generations, for a critical mass of society to achieve the status of what might be termed “paganhood.”

Having finally arrived at that way station, travelers might then be on the verge of being able to say that they are both spiritual and religious—and in the Christian sense of both conditions. Impossible, you say? Not really. Even a cursory understanding of the early history of “historical Christianity” ought to tell us that much.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


  • John C. Chalberg

    John “Chuck” Chalberg is a retired academic, having taught American history for years at Normandale Community College in the suburban Twin Cities. He graduated from Regis College, Denver and has a doctorate in history from the U of Minnesota. He performs as Chesterton, H.L. Mencken, Theodore Roosevelt and a few others, and has written for the print version of Crisis, the now departed Weekly Standard, National Review, and regular reviews for Gilbert! magazine.

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