My Life as a “None”

Heather Greene —  February 3, 2013 — 16 Comments

Before I started writing for The Wild Hunt, Jason suggested that I introduce myself.  I never did and time scurried away.  So today, I’m going to share with you a personal revelation – an admission, of sorts.  I frequently write about my Jewish upbringing.  But now I must confess that I was really only Jew-ish.  In actuality, I was raised a “none.”

antique photograph

Photo courtesy of Flickr’s curtis4x5

As I child, I lived in a wholly secular family environment. We didn’t have a mezuzah.  We didn’t belong to a temple. Religion had no place in our lives. Words like “prayer,” “faith” and “God” were foreign terms used by other people. Existence was explained through science and philosophy. Ethics were harvested from history, art and experience.

And so it was, my life as a “none.”  Before I continue, let me be clear. We were not atheists, agnostics or humanists.  We were nothing.  We just lived in the world as it presented itself; which, as it turns out, was very religiously diverse. While that eclectic environment was fundamentally excellent, the diversity eventually became a problem.

Everyone around me had a religious identity linking them to a community filled with rich tradition and heritage. Through these identities, they had a defined relationship with spirit.  Some kids went to CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes and others to Hebrew school. Some missed school for Yom Kippur and others fasted during Ramadan.

While I felt the presence of spirit, I had no means of accessing it. The few Jewish prayers that I knew were spoken in a foreign language; rendering them spiritually useless.  I was left standing alone outside the religious speak-easy with no password to enter.

This void became my burden and my quest.  I clung desperately to the small trickle of Jewish culture that was accessible.  In doing so, I did find my cultural heritage but, unfortunately, I found no suitable relationship to spirit.

Astronomical Clock in Prague Courtesy of Anthony Dodd

Astronomical Clock in Prague
Courtesy of Anthony Dodd

As the wheel turns, life changes. I am no longer nothing.  My quest led me to Wicca and my burden was left at some doorstep long ago. Interestingly enough, I can also now say that I was never nothing.  There is finally a label for what I was: “religiously unaffiliated.”  I was a “none.”  According to Pew Forum, the “unaffiliated” population has now grown from 5-10%, in the 1980s, to today’s 19.8% of the overall population. This growth warranted finally giving the group a name.

What has fuelled this growth?  Harvard Professor, Robert Putnam told NPR, “this young generation has been distancing itself from community institutions…” Putnam goes on to relate this phenomenon to the heavily polarized socio-political landscape with regards to religion. While that may be so, I’d also suggest that this increase coincides with our transformation into an independent “do-it-yourself” society.  (e.g. Home Depot, You Tube, TiVo, eTrade.)  We now have “do-it-yourself” religion.

While that sounds as if I’m mocking the concept, I’m not.  Remember, I was raised a “none.”  As such, I’ve always participated in creative, off-beat religious expression.  One year, we renamed our secular Christmas holiday to “Peacemas,” celebrated with Jewish friends, Kugel and Pictionary. 

Additionally, secular culture is increasingly able to fill the void that plagued me as child – one of connectivity. Of course, the internet plays a big role, but outside of that, “nones” are connecting in the physical world.  Just this month, the First Church of Atheism opened its doors in the U.K.  Founder Sanderson Jones said, “We want all the things that are good about bringing a community together and make us better people, just without God being involved.”

Similarly, Calgary boasts the new Calgary Secular Church.  Founder Korey Peters explained, “We are a small group of a-religious or atheist people who want the community and celebration we used to have in our Christian (or Mormon) churches.”  These “nones” are searching, as I did, for the community connection that only comes through one’s relationship to spirit; whether that spirit be through humanity or other secular modalities.

Reason Rally

Summer Reason Rally in WDC
Courtesy of CNN.com

Now there’s even a movement.  I suppose someone stood up and said, “Hey, wait!  There are a lot of us.  What can we do with that?” Dale McGowan, director of Foundation Beyond Belief , told CNN:

Part of it is trying to consolidate … cultural presence. That has something to do with politics, but it is also more generally cultural…Much as churches and synagogues foster and nurture communities, Atheists can do the same to gain clout and broader acceptance

On January 26th in Atlanta, the eighth annual Heads Meeting took place. It was attended by leaders from various secular organizations such as; The American Humanist Association, Foundations Beyond Belief, The Center for Inquiry, and American Athiests. They met to discuss the socio-political future of the “non-affiliated.”  Dale McGowan explains:

These groups operated separately from each other and sometimes at odds with each other. There was a realization that we should meet once a year and come together on the goals that we have in common.

What makes a “none?”  How do they distill all that diversity into one single word?  What is the defining point?  Simply put, they all check “not affiliated.”  That’s it. That’s what binds them. That’s what makes them “nones.”

I relate this to art. The “nones” are the negative space – the environment around the meticulously drawn picture. Good artists always carefully consider their negative space because in visual imagery, nothing is always something. As a child, I was defined as nothing.  Now, the “nones,” are embracing that definition; being defined by what they are not.  They are the negative space filling 20% of the collective social canvas. They are something.

Many years ago, I left the life of “nothing” and found a spiritual path, a deep connection to humanity through the language of Wicca.  I went from being a “none” to being a Priestess; from the negative space to the positive.  Why are the “nones” important to me now?  Why should they be important to Pagans?

The “nones’” cultural evolution appears to be running almost parallel to the Pagan movement.  Just as they did, many of us looked up one day and said, “Hey, wait! There are a lot of us.  What can do with that?”  We are asking similar questions. Do we need to organize?  Should we build institutions? How can we foster community? Do we need leaders?  And most importantly, how do we define “Pagan?”  Where is the checkbox on the form?  We have much to learn from the “nones.”

BeachGirlAs for my personal journey, I can now better appreciate my childhood.  My parents’ secular path allowed me the freedom to eventually build my own relationship to religion; to become a spiritual artist.  Where once there was angst and frustration, there is now respect and gratitude.

To this day, my life as a “none” colors my Wiccan experience. I enjoy drawing the sacred out of the secular and finding the magick in the mainstream. While I have yet to do a full moon ritual with Broadway music, I can see the creative possibilities. For me, the lines between the secular and the sacred are blurred, colored by the language of Wicca. I do still check “unaffiliated” and will continue to do so until Wicca or Pagan has its own check box.

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She is currently the National Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and has worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. Heather's work has been published in Circle Magazine and elsewhere. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • Peter Dybing

    Over time I have been thinking about the ‘intersection of intent’ that we as a community share with the Atheists. As a community that values science, is concerned with the enviornment and values all belief structures there are many issues that bring us to a cross roads where we can engage with each other for the good of all humanity

    • Genexs

      During our Imbolc ritual, our coven engaged in a great deal of conversation centered on the Nones. The majority of Pagans and Wiccans, in my humble opinion, do indeed seem to share much in common with them. Their acceptance of scientific reality, such as a demonstrable understanding of global warming and other environmental issues is proof of that. Like us,
      they understand that we are part of this planet and evolved here. I
      think we share in common a desire for a better world and a better or
      more just society. But I don’t think that involves ‘bringing them
      into the fold’ of Wicca or Paganism. Does that not smack too much of
      proselytizing? I think it would be more valuable to form an alliance
      with them on the issues we share in common. One thing that seem to be
      a plus, is that the Simon Bar Kokhba-like flame throwing of the first
      crop of “New Atheists” seems to have abated. My past experience
      has been, with a few notable and pleasant exceptions (hi,
      Toomanytribbles!) that it is not productive trying to open up a
      dialog with people who have decided you are irreducibly insane.
      Recently their also seems to be a shift away from the stridently
      anti-religious/anti-spiritual antics and comments of their movers and
      shakers. So, I do think there is a great opportunity to move forward
      with these people. But exactly how to do that is what I really need
      to know and need help with.

    • Deborah Bender

      A Craft tradition I belong to has had no difficulty renting halls for rituals from a Humanist church with an atheist philosophy and from a Marxist library, both in Oakland, California. They both can use the money, but I presume they wouldn’t rent to organizations that they consider inimicable to their ideals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.tanner.31 Steve Tanner

    I never stopped to think about this until reading your article, but I was raised a “none,” also. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I tried Christianity, but that didn’t work out. About a decade after, I stumbled upon Wicca. The eclectic nature of Wicca has led me to explore other Pagan offerings, many of which are fascinating. However, some of the arguing over what qualifies an individual as being this or belonging to that has brought me back to being non-affiliated, again. I am a Pagan, but that is a broad “umbrella.” However, I prefer spirituality over religion, so “none” seems appropriate and comfortable now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mary.hellmann.1 Mary Hellmann

    Dear younger persons…I was raised a closet witch. We had a cover religion, catholicism…we could burn candles, burn incense and chant and our rural neighbors would just smile and say “catholics”. I had to teach my children not to ever mention our religious views, and dragged them to mass every Sunday. People that we knew who said they were pagan had their homes burned, their businesses destroyed and their children taken from them. I am only 54, folks…all this tolerance is a new thing. I have NEVER been a nothing, I have just been a very careful hereditary witch….you might be surprised how very many of us there are! :)

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Care to share what state you were raised in?

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    “Church of Atheism”? What, really, is the difference between that and a social club?

    • http://entdinglichung.wordpress.com Entdinglichung

      tax excemption … reminds me of this experiment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labour_Church

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      The First Church of Atheism is a joke. Now, a social club — that’s serious.

  • Al Moonlight

    Sounds like someone is trying to re-invent the humanistic wing of Unitarianism all over again. ;)

  • cernowain greenman

    I was also raised in a “none” home. However, it was not a positive experience for me. Money and looking good were what was important. They did not believe in helping others outside the family. My family had little values beyond taking care of one’s self. This led me to search for meaning, which I found in both religion and philosophy. I am now a Wiccan and find the connection to Nature and to others very powerful and fulfilling.

    I do not know if many of the “nones” are like my family or not. I hope they are not, but I know some are. Whether one is religious or not, I agree with the belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I was raised as a “none” until my mid-teens, but not without religious input. My parents marriage was of a Jew and a Methodist, and I was carefully exposed to the faiths of both sides without any attempt to evangelize me (I assume that was a restriciton my parents imposed). When I was an adolescent my parents decided we kids needed a brand name and, after a little Sunday School sampling, packed me off to a Unitarian church. Though I didn’t change much in my moral orientation I ceased to be a “none” because I became affiliated with an institution. The moral of which is not to put too much effort into describing the spiritual nature of the “none.” There may be no there there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=693252858 Holli S. Emore

    Beautifully-written, Heather

  • Anomalous

    As soon as she said ‘and now we’re a movement…’ I immediately thought of Arlo Guthrie. “You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant (except for Alice)…”

  • Kilmrnock

    I was a none for over twenty Years , i gave up on the faith of my birth and parents in my very late teens . After a near death experience , alot of soul searching , talking to various clergy and on the suggestion of another scifi geek freind i found paganism and on researching the faith of my ancestors and stumbling around a bit i became a CR.Now i am firmly entrenched in the ranks of Celtic Reconstructionism . This journey in itself has taken almost 20 yrs . At 57 , 2 marriages , a heart attack and various other crap along the way i’m a quite happy CR.But i well understand what i means and feels like to be a None before there was a name for what i was at that time .And yes i admitted to being a scifi Geek . And FYI for those who don’t know this , there are alot of pagans amoungst Scifi/Horror fans .

    • Kilmrnock

      Over twenty years , actualy . Sorry , kilm