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Not Simply 'None': Local Religion Scholar, Humanist Discuss Spiritual Identity, Trends

James Croft (at left), outreach director for the Ethical Society of St. Louis, and Leigh Schmidt, the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University, joined Wednesday's talk show.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

With a growing sector of America having left traditional religion in recent decades, speculation about the reasons for that exit is common, as are easy conclusions about what it all portends.

“There’s so much cultural criticism aimed at the ‘nones’ – those who aren’t affiliated or those who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious,” Washington University’s Leigh Schmidt said Wednesday while talking with St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh.

He added that fellow Americans frequently assume that the disaffiliated are, by definition, lacking in terms of morals or ethics, when “the stories that they have are far more complicated.”

“And so I think it behooves us to listen to them … to really listen to the complexity of their stories and all of the different things that go into this,” said Schmidt, who is the university’s Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities. “And [being] a ‘none’ tells us very little about these people when you use that label.”

James Croft, outreach director for the Ethical Society of St. Louis, agreed.

“I get to see the sort of micro-level version of what Leigh’s been talking about on the macro level – I get to talk to individual people, many of whom have moved away from the religious faith of their childhood,” Croft said during the show. “I get to hear their stories, and I hear similar things again and again. Many people have drifted away from their religious backgrounds because they want to maintain their intellectual and moral integrity.”

Sometimes, Croft said, the exit has to do with no longer believing key tenets or with expressing doubts that were not resolved or responded to in a welcoming or satisfying way.

Among younger people, he added, discomfort with teachings about the role of LGBTQ people in society, along with women’s potential to be leaders within a spiritual community, often looms large.

“But I want to stress something important,” Croft continued, “which is I think that there are lots of positive reasons, as well, why people decide that they don’t want to be part of a traditional religion anymore. Many of our members [at the Ethical Society] are looking for positive messages about how we can live life ethically and how we can make sense of our experience and build community. They don’t always find traditional religious communities speaking to those needs anymore, and so they go to places which do.”

His own congregation currently serves as that kind of alternative sanctuary for hundreds of St. Louisans and has a 133-year history in the region, beginning at what is now Sheldon Concert Hall. But Schmidt noted that among the roughly 25 percent of Americans who now claim no religious affiliation, most “aren’t really looking” for another religious home, according to recent social surveys.

“Eighty or 90 percent say they’re not [seeking such a community],” said Schmidt, who is affiliated with Wash U’s John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. “That is, they might be interested in trying something out for a while, but they’re not really looking for a fixed place, at least that’s not what the social surveys are saying. So I think it makes community-building hard, because you’re looking at a demographic now [that] doesn’t really share James’ estimate of all of these benefits of being in a community.

“So that adds to the struggle, or the difficulties or the challenges, I think, for people who are trying to build up these communities among the disaffiliated.”

Croft’s impression is that people who are part of a “congregation” of some kind tend to be happier and more fulfilled in their lives, develop deeper relationships and find “the support they need when something goes wrong” in life.

“They also tend to be more civically active – more willing to volunteer in their community, to play a role in political campaigns, to give money to charities,” he said. “There seems to be a lot of benefits to being a member of a congregation, and that’s why I’m happy that somewhere like the Ethical Society exists in St. Louis, because that means that you can be a member of a congregation even if you don’t have traditional religious beliefs.”

Croft was quick to add that the people he gathers with on a regular basis do have “profound commitments” when it comes to morality and spiritual values, however.

“Ethical Societies were founded precisely because our founder believed that there needed to be a space to explore the biggest questions that all human beings face as we go through life: Why are we here? How can we find meaning and purpose? How should we treat each other? How should we raise our children? What sort of society do we want to live in?” he explained. “But [we] needed a place where everybody could come, regardless of their beliefs about God or the supernatural, that wasn’t sectarian in that way.”

Related Event
What: Church Without God: What Is An Ethical Society?
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, January 31, 2019
Where: Ethical Society of St. Louis (9001 Clayton Rd., St. Louis, MO 63117)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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