A None's Story
More Americans than ever before identify themselves as having a spiritual side without practicing any particular organized faith. It is not unusual for many of these people to agree with some tenets of one or more of the four major religions practiced in the United States. These people are not agnostic because they tend to believe in God and think this being can have a knowable impact on their lives. Some even visit places of worship, but do not identify themselves as exclusively part of a single congregation or particular faith. These folks are referred to as “Nones” by the author because, though they may be spiritually inclined, they check the box labeled “None” in surveys of religious affiliation. In a way, this growing demographic strikes a balance between those who practice in the many churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples across the country and the atheists and agnostics, many of whom decry belief in the existence or knowability of a divine being and often cite the incompatibility of such beliefs with science.
The author, Corinna Nicolaou, a self confessed none, decides that she wants to understand how people of the four major religions in America practice their faith, as well as how helpful or not she might find these activities to the development and understanding of her own spiritual and religious identity. The author proceeds to systematically worship with congregations in a huge number of different churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. She does not act as a passive observer. She joins in the worship with every community she visits and genuinely gives each type of religious observance a chance to impact her spirituality as she thinks critically about what she is getting out of each mode of worship. The result is a fascinating look at how many different Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims pray and seek succor from their notion of the divine. As you might expect, the author commits many a faux pas in the process of trying to fit in during unfamiliar worship rites. But there are also numerous touching moments when complete strangers (even in orthodox situations) genuinely make an effort to be welcoming and understanding of this self described “None”. Nicolaou is honest and open about her situation with every person she meets and she goes out of her way to explain why she is visiting their place of worship. At no point does she pretend to be anything other than a curious “None” who wants to give the four religions and their several sects a try. As a result the author opens America’s four largest religions to her readers. It is a fascinating journey that takes her to numerous Christian churches in Eastern Washington and to the largest church in the country in Orange County, California, to several synagogues in Los Angeles, to a wide variety of Buddhist temples in the San Francisco Bay Area, to a handful of mosques in Texas, and finally to a multi-faith chapel at The Pentagon in Washington, DC. For me the book demonstrates the incredible diversity of religion and spirituality in America and shows that, despite vastly different belief systems, “Nones” and folks from a wide set of religious beliefs and practices can coexist in peace and even pray together.