RELIGION
07/22/2015 08:31 pm ET

How The 'Nones' Can Find A Sense Of Community Outside Of Religion

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The "nones," or the religiously unaffiliated, are a rapidly growing "faith" group in the United States. They make up roughly 23 percent of the U.S. adult population and 35 percent of millennials and can be seen cropping up across demographic categories.

As the global population continues growing exponentially, the percentage of "nones" is expected to decline, though their actual numbers will increase. This won't be the case in Europe and North America, however, where the percentage of "nones" will likely continue to rise.

The “nones” now constitute the second largest faith-related demographic in the U.S. and are bound to have a powerful impact on American culture and politics as the years go on, as religion scholar Diane Winston wrote recently in Vice. Religious leaders, writers and scholars are tasked with understanding this rising trend, as "nones" seek out new forms of community.

In a pointed February column, New York Times writer David Brooks discussed the rise of secularism and questioned the "unprecedented moral burdens" people put on themselves by forsaking religion. He argued that most religions have developed moral philosophies over the course of centuries. Secular people have to start from scratch, he said. Essentially, he was asking: If it isn't broken, why fix it?

His fears were promptly addressed by other religion writers, who noted that many people who leave religious institutions do so because they feel those institutions no longer inspire moral action, or because they disagree with fundamental moral tenets of the faith. 

But Brooks raised another important question: How do "nones" find a sense of "meaningful" community outside of faith?

Secular individuals have to build their own communities. Religions come equipped with covenantal rituals that bind people together, sacred practices that are beyond individual choice. Secular people have to choose their own communities and come up with their own practices to make them meaningful.

"Nones" are building communities in myriad ways, some of them more organized than others. From meditation groups to the very church-like Sunday Assemblies, the religiously unaffiliated are finding ways to connect with one another.

Prominent evangelical Christian-turned-humanist Bart Campolo led a recent Los Angeles Sunday Assembly, a secular congregational movement, and wrote about his experience in an email to his network:

We go to the movies. We ride roller coasters. We smile when our significant others dim the lights and cue up the slow jams. Strange as it sounds, when we know and trust what’s going on, we actually enjoy being artfully frightened, thrilled, turned on, and even saddened sometimes. Likewise, at weddings, funerals and other ceremonies, we purposely set the stage for true emotions that we know will be good for us.

Frankly, that’s what I was going for with the whole program at Sunday Assembly. My goal was to inspire everyone there to want to build the kind of loving, missional, secular community that can heal broken lives and transform all of us – and especially our children – into better, happier people. I didn’t just want them to think it. I wanted them to feel it in their bones.

The scene at Sunday Assembly had the strangely familiar flavor of church, noted Campolo. His father is Tony Campolo, a famous public evangelical and former spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton. That church-like feel won't appeal to all "nones," who range from atheists to people with no "particular" religion, the younger Campolo admitted.

Another option for secular community-building comes from the unlikely arena of business, which veteran businessman and educator Jeffrey C. Walker has watched become more and more collaborative over the years. Walker suggested that “nones” organize Jeffersonian Dinners, a kind of networking event modeled after historic gatherings Thomas Jefferson held at his home in Monticello. 

“People are looking for others they can play with, work with, build relationships with, and the dinners are one way to do that,” Walker, co-author of The Generosity Network, told The Huffington Post.

A typical Jeffersonian Dinner, Walker explains, brings together eight to 15 people over a meal to discuss a topic or cause of interest. That might be education reform, technology or global poverty. The guests don’t have to come with answers or checkbooks, but rather bring an open mind and be prepared to make connections with those seated around them.

Millennials -- the most religiously unaffiliated demographic group --  are particularly “interested in being involved in social endeavors or working with others for outcomes that are important to them,” Walker told HuffPost. It’s something he describes as “the ensemble effect.”

“The ability to lower walls and open yourself up to others,” Walker reflected, “that’s a transformational, spiritual experience.”

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