‘Nones’ in the movement: Tippett, Schneider discuss religion, Occupy Wall Street

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
“On Being” host Krista Tippett and author and activist Nathan Schneider discuss social justice and the role of religion in social justice movements during the Interfaith Lecture on Friday in the Hall of Philosophy.

The question is not whether or not God exists, Nathan Schneider said, but what is your relationship with God?

Schneider, author and editor of two online publications, spoke of changing relationships in regard to religion, the Occupy Wall Street movement and technology with Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s “On Being,” at 2 p.m. Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. It was the final Interfaith Lecture in Tippett’s weeklong series, “Conversations of the American Consciousness.”

Schneider thought he needed to find a proof, or something like it, to define his experience with God.

“This was a time when the new atheist was just getting going. This was right after 9/11,” he said. “Those were the things that were happening in the world around me. So this question of: Does God exist? Is religion real? What is its relationship to violence? The stakes of these questions were very, very high.”

Once he began delving into religious traditions, referencing proofs such as St. Anselm’s “Ontological Argument,” he realized the relationship people had with God was the important part.

“In the course of entering the question of proof — wanting that yes or no answer for myself — I had to come to terms with the fact that the way I was framing the question, the way the question was being framed around me, was not the only way to do it,” he said. “And maybe it wasn’t the best way.”

Tippett connected this idea of the relationship being more important than the proof to the “Nones” which have become present in today’s society.

“ ‘Nones’ refers to people who say that they have no religious affiliation, are not ready to put that label on themselves,” Tippett said. “It’s something like 20 percent of Americans now, and one-third of adults under 30 are self-described religiously unaffiliated, but I have all kinds of philosophies and it is so false and misleading to characterize this as a group of non-religious people.”

Schneider said young people today are falling into this “None” category because they don’t believe the religious institutions are serving their full purpose. He found that most young people who follow religious traditions idly go through the motions of institutional practice, but the people outside of the traditions actively ask questions and seek out knowledge about different religions.

He used the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example, which was the focus of his book, Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse.

“When young people in this secular, social, political movement started turning their attention to churches … it wasn’t that they were protesting that this was a church or the things that a church would claim to believe,” he said. “What they were actually saying was, ‘Church, act like a church.’ ”

The people taking part in these protests could be identified as “Nones,” Schneider said. While still believing in the greater spiritual role of the church, they didn’t belong to a religious institution. They collectively felt as though the church wasn’t doing its job.

The protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement shared big ideas about society and politics, but Tippett pointed out that Schneider wrote about diversity within the group that proved to be challenging.

“The kind of internal tension, especially in the big-city occupations in the U.S., ended up being about race and about class — about the things that divide us that we don’t know how to talk about,” Schneider said. “ ‘We are the 99 percent,’ was this rallying cry, but it turned out that we are the 99 percent in a lot of different ways.”

This marginalizing factor of the Occupy movement is something that can been seen in movements all across history, he said. It also brought about different expectations from people in the movement itself and those throughout the world who were keeping tabs on it. Some of these expectations were a result of the storytelling going on at the time, which was painting an inaccurate picture of what was going on in uprisings around the world.

“One thing I was noticing about the way those stories were being told was that it was just about the flicker that happens on streets … it was just about the flash — about the spectacle,” Schneider said.

This set up disappointment among young people who expected quick fixes from the movement, and it left others waiting for the next Martin Luther King Jr. to rise up and speak for an entire nation, he said.

Tippett steered the conversation toward technology and the “digital native” generation, which Schneider said was a troubling term in and of itself. It’s true in the sense that people know how to use the technology, he said, but there’s a huge gap between knowing how to simply use something and knowing how it works, how to create it for oneself and how to think about improving it.

“It’s not yes or no, technology or no technology — it’s what kind of decisions can we make about how we use that technology, how we structure the economics of it, how we build communities around it,” he said.

The Occupy Wall Street movement started with a viral email and was then organized on social media, Schneider said, proving that technology does have the power to bring people together in a physical sense.

It’s this sense of community, the power of organization and stories of people acting with agency to fight injustice that Schneider said gives him hope for the future.

“I hope that we can learn to tell those stories better,” he said. “I hope that we can learn to see that dignity that’s in all of us — that divinity that comes when we organize together.”