Column: My Life as a “None”

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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.