A Religious ‘None’ in the Middle East

When asked what I plan to do with a Master of Theological Studies – a question I encounter frequently as a recent graduate in a field many are unfamiliar with – my well-rehearsed, though honest, response is always something along the lines of, “I plan on doing non-profit work, focused on issues of social justice and human rights, using an interfaith approach as a platform for finding common ground and facilitating conflict resolution.” I then pause and smile, anticipating the follow-up question, already mentally scrambling to throw together an answer that might make sense. And then, inevitably – “So, what is your faith tradition?” After nearly 7 years of studying religion and being asked countless times about my religious background, my reply to this question is surprisingly and decidedly unrehearsed and never fails to leave me flustered, inarticulate, and generally befuddled.

This is in part because the question itself implies that having a strong interest in matters of religion is the result of – and perhaps even requires – having a strong personal faith in the first place. It’s not so much that other people assume this that bothers me, it’s that part of me assumes it too.

I am what the Pew Forum has dubbed a religious ‘None‘- a member of the class of the religiously unaffiliated, the ‘spiritual but not religious,’ the ‘don’t-put-me-into-a-religious-box’ type. I don’t particularly identify with any of these labels but, alas, that too only conforms to the general idea. I grew up with a culturally Jewish mother who had a very personal spirituality and a father who had long since left behind his Catholic upbringing and instead defined his moral framework largely through science and environmentalism. Religion, therefore, was not a common topic in our household, nor something I was particularly drawn to or knowledgeable about. Being raised in the conservative Christian atmosphere of central Oklahoma and having increasing contact with the Muslim community of greater Oklahoma City illuminated for me the importance of understanding the complexity and influence of religion, as I saw the ways in which religion was not simply something abstract to be studied in the classroom, but a lived phenomenon that had direct implications for civic participation, community development, and relationships at various levels of society.

In order to understand religion as a lived experience more fully, I went on to get a Master of religion and have spent time working with various non-profits that have an interfaith or community-engagement focus. I recently relocated to Amman, Jordan in order to volunteer with Syrian refugees and continue to work on my Arabic. I still, however, continue to grapple very much with my own spirituality. Despite the fact that being a None in the US is an increasingly accepted norm – particularly among those of my generation – I’ve felt uncomfortable with where my place at the table is, so to speak, throughout my academic and professional career in theological studies. Without a solid platform of faith to stand on, but with a strong belief that religious literacy is critical in today’s world, I struggle with how to personally participate in the faith-based relationships and conversations I intend to facilitate professionally.

Moving to the Middle East has raised my existential crisis of None-ness to new heights as religion here infuses practically every part of daily life and culture. It is present even in the most basic components of conversation – from the standard greeting of asalaamu’alaykum (peace be upon you), to any statement of planned or potential future activity, after which should never fail to say insha’Allah (God willing) – ; it’s not uncommon to climb into a taxi and hear recitations of the Qur’an softly playing from the radio; I hear the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, five times per day, echoing between Amman’s many hills. Additionally, I recently began interning with an interfaith organization that is run by a Catholic priest and have been attending Mass in the modest church next to the office where we work. Thus, while my interior, spiritual life remains largely defined by my None-ness, my outer, day-to-day life is characterized by a continuously present religious Some-ness. Here, my fumbling, ambiguous response to “So, what is your faith tradition?” evokes in the inquirer a befuddlement that seems to rival my own.

Life in Amman has brought me face-to-face with questions and concerns I was previously inclined to brush off: How important is personal faith in the pursuit of interfaith work? Can I ever truly teach the religious literacy I find to be so essential without having had a tradition that provided me with a reference for my own religious language? It has also, however, given me better insight into some of the unique advantages of being a None: I have the ability to act as a go-between of sorts among faith traditions and religious actors. I can facilitate interactions and faith-based dialogue without being perceived as having a theological stake in the issue. I can start up interesting conversations with people who are just as curious about my lack of a defined faith as I am about the presence and influence of theirs. Perhaps most importantly, I see that personal struggles with questions of faith are not uncommon, even among the most devout practitioners. I find that moments of ambiguity and confusion regarding religion and its role in life can often inspire deeper revelations and foster closer relationships than can comparing and contrasting theological absolutes.

I may never feel perfectly at ease in my spiritual skin and I may never have a confident or clear answer when asked about my faith tradition. I hope, however, that my experience of being a religious None in the interfaith world will continue to fuel my theological curiosities and help me navigate both the challenges and opportunities that come with living a life that is, in one way or another, touched by faith.

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14 thoughts on “A Religious ‘None’ in the Middle East

  1. It seems to me that it would definitely be an advantage not to have a defined “faith” or specific religious affiliation in your position, however I would think that a definite belief that God, in whatever form, exists would be essential. Unlike you I have haven’t had much formal religious training but I have a true belief that God exists. Without a specific church affiliation I feel comfortable discussing religion with people of all faiths without feeling the need to judge them or try and sway them to my point of view.

    1. Patti, thank you for your thoughtful comment! I’m so happy that you are able to discuss religion with those from a variety of faith traditions and perspectives, and that you feel comfortable doing so (the world needs more people like you!!). While a belief in God – whatever that may mean to different people – is certainly an important point of intersection for a lot of interreligious dialogue, I will say that I’ve met many humanists and atheists who resolutely do not believe in God, but who have done incredible and pioneering work, in both the fields of theology and interfaith work. Humanists often place their “faith” in the goodness and inherent value of humanity and still maintain a deep respect for, and curiosity about, religion. Additionally, I really resonated with what you said about the ways in which being unaffiliated can be a more neutral position from which one does not feel any need to compare and contrast or to persuade. Thank you!

  2. Chelsea, this is a beautiful reflection on being ‘none.’ I’ve watched many friends who similarly commit such tremendous energy and passion to Interfaith work plague themselves with concerns about their ‘none’-ness. The truth is that those of us working from within a faith really deeply need the nones as a reminder of the value of that yearning you describe. So many become complacent in faith and become a ‘no-one.’

    Being none seems to me a far better thing than no-one. Buber put it well, I think, “The atheist staring from his attic window is often nearer to God than the believer caught up in his own false image of God.”

    1. Adam, I just love what you said about becoming a “no-one.” In addition to being clever, it’s an excellent point. As a None, I think I often mistakenly assume that anyone who is affiliated with a particular religious tradition must have a clear sense of what that tradition means to them, knows exactly what they believe about any given theological topic, and is comfortable and consistent in their conception of divinity. Of course, I know perfectly well that this isn’t the case. There is always a spectrum, always nuance. When religion is lived and experienced through human beings, there will inevitably be infinite “religions.” Your comment, however, is a good reminder for me that it’s not a case of “have’s” and “have-nots”/ “nones” and “somes.” A None is neither necessarily, nor simply, a negation. There is value in seeking, whether one does it from within a faith tradition or from the “attic.”

  3. Hi Chelsea, I am Brazilian , degree in theology and now I am doing a master degree in London.
    I hope we can keep in touch, I really like your article…
    Luiz xxx

  4. Dear Chelsea

    I hope my message finds you well. This is Mustafa from Egypt. I am in a dire need to your help simply because I’d like to pursue my master degree in the field of religious minorities in the Arab and Islamic world. Therefore, I need to be in a contact with any professor please. Thank you

  5. I so feel you! It’s incredibly challenging (but very growth-inducing) to be a “none,” though I lean more toward Humanist, in the Middle East. But with a spirit of openness, it can open up amazing learning and dialogue opportunities – people love to talk about their faith with someone who doesn’t present an overtly contrasting viewpoint. Keep on keeping on – I’d love to keep tabs on what you end up doing!

    1. Stephanie, glad to hear I’m not the only one! 🙂 Thank you for your comment. I would be really curious to hear about your experiences and work as well! I think what you said is so true – perhaps a lot of being a None is all about the attitude and what you make of it. People really are often just curious and interested and if you present yourself, as you say, with a spirit of openness, they are likely to reciprocate. Thank you!

  6. Dear Chelsea, I understand very well the inner experience of being/feeling oneself a ‘none’, though I converted to the islamic religion 25 years ago, raised in a family without religious education . Over the years I experienced social pressure to get myself ‘belonging’ to a more cultural community. Even though I became a teacher of islamic religion , the search of the ‘truth’ intrigued me and pushed me into a tough struggle, -inner and outer- I got freed of what I call the emprisonment of the proclamed truth.
    Now there is a strong conviction in my hart that having a rich spiritual life brings oneself closer to being human in a rightious relationship to God than living your life defined by a religion.
    this year I started theological studies with the intention to start a master interfaith dialogue afterwards. I would appreciate it to keep in touch with you.
    assalaam aleikoum

    1. Dear Ingrid, walaykum assalaam!

      Thank you for your beautiful words and thoughtful reflection. I’m always so interested to hear about the faith journeys of others and yours sounds like an amazing one! I appreciate the distinction you make between inner and outer religion. I often think that if I ever choose to define myself by a particular religious tradition I want it to be something that I wrestle with — continuing to ask hard questions and searching for answers. I’ve always liked the idea of having a supportive religious community and a way to share in the outward expressions of faith, but I also hear what you’re saying that that could involve pressures and expectations that might be uncomfortable or out of line with one’s personal notion of religion and God. Thank you for giving me something to think about and best of luck with your studies!

  7. Chelsea, I can relate to your experience very well. Often people are as befuddled by my lack of practiced response to the “what is your faith tradition?” question as they are to the answer itself. That is those who do not assume that I am a minister because of my stint at divinity school. I am currently doing social justice work in Uganda with a humanist service group. Here, in this vastly religious nation, I am confronted with my none-ness daily. (I have written about some of the unique challenges of this situation before — http://www.stateofformation.org/2013/09/on-teaching-religion-at-a-humanist-school-in-a-christian-nation/)

    As someone who is more in the atheist camp than the spiritual-not-religious camp I cannot believe that having a personal faith is necessary to doing interfaith work. Like you said not having a traditional personal faith can be an advantage for one’s ability to be a go-between. Also our presence challenges religious actors to face their assumptions and, more importantly, challenges them to be more inclusive in their interbelief work. Just as my beliefs are challenged when I enter the interbelief fold.

    1. Thanks for your reflection, Wendy! It sounds like you’re doing amazing and challenging work in Uganda. I appreciate your point about how the presence of someone who may not believe or may not know WHAT they believe can challenge the assumptions of believers. I know that I myself am often surrounded by people who are like-minded and share similar values to myself and a sudden encounter with someone who has a completely different or new perspective is always cause for some good, hard reflection!

  8. Chelsea, you got me thinking about the subject myself. I wonder if the opposite of None is one/or oness. If we stir all our differences what rises to the surface is our similarities, so no need to choose, as we already have our place, together. Chelsea, you talk of your confusion, and I also wonder if reading literature most seekers will mention a time in which they have felt either disappointment or being shaken in their beliefs, which turns out to be a time of major searching, and eventual clarity. So how wonderful you are engaged in that process now!

    1. Carole, thank you for this. Sometimes in the midst of confusion and uncertainty it can be hard to remember that even confusion is a productive and often necessary process. Life’s paths are seldom perfectly clear or straight and if being shaken leads and motivates us to search and actively find our way, we often emerge stronger! I really appreciate you reminding me of that. 🙂

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