At HDS, Nones Are Greater Than One

December 18, 2014
Angela Thurston
Angela Thurston, MDiv '16, is president of the HDS Religious Nones. / Photo: Michael Naughton

When MDiv candidate and HDS Humanists group leader Casper ter Kuile sent out a call last academic year for "humanists, agnostics, atheists, and people who identify as spiritual but not religious," a handful of students showed up eager to share their worldviews, but unsure if they fit under the humanist label.  

The current president of the group, Angela Thurston, MDiv '16, enjoyed the community she found with the small humanist group, but she didn't feel like her religious identity as a Urantia Book reader fit into the humanist theology that the group's name suggested.

"We ended up having a conversation, because if it was only the four of us, and if we couldn't maintain the group using that label, then it probably wasn't the right label to be using," says Thurston.

Soon after, ter Kuile and the group came up with a new, more inclusive name: The HDS Religious Nones.

The term "religious none" is used to describe people who check the "none" box on surveys or polls asking for their religious affiliation. 

Last spring there were four members of the HDS Religious Nones who met weekly. Today, there are 34 student members and the average weekly group attendance is about 12 people. While this is partially due to outreach during the 2014 new student orientation, the increase in numbers also reflects trends of religious identity across the United States.

According to a 2012 Pew Forum study, religious nones are on the rise. One-fifth of the U.S. public and one-third of adults under the age of 30 identify as religiously unaffiliated. 

Yet, as in the case with Thurston, being unaffiliated with a religion does not mean a life without religion. 

"It was important for us that it be called the Religious Nones in order to represent that, in many cases, being unaffiliated does not negate being religious," Thurston explains.

While the founding members of the group felt the name was a better fit for their student group than HDS Humanists, they also recognize that calling themselves "nones" is only a temporary solution to the larger goal of creating community for people who are not affiliated with any major religious traditions.

"We talked about how defining yourself as a negative is problematic," says founding member and MTS candidate Nicki Reinhardt. "But, I think the idea of being the group of the nones left more room for everything. It's not that we aren't anything; it’s that we are lots of different things and anyone can come and be an individual and not necessarily have to have some shared or common belief or practice."

The current membership of the HDS Religious Nones includes not only students who identify as atheist, agnostic, and humanist, but also students who are affiliated with religious traditions and are active members of other religious student groups on campus.

Cora McCold, MDiv '17, is one of the many students who joined the Religious Nones this fall. 

"I identify as a None and as a Unitarian Universalist," explains McCold, who is also a member of the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Students group. "I still find value in the UU identity I was raised with, but I joined the Nones because I was interested in having a community of fellow seekers and a welcoming space to explore new ideas and practices."

Because of the surge in membership to the HDS Religious Nones, the founding members have sought to bring more structure into their weekly meetings.

"We were intentional about deciding to create some consistency in order to see how the group responded to having our meetings be an anchor in our week, as well as to facilitate both the safety and the bravery of that space," says Thurston.

The HDS Religious Nones meet every Wednesday during the semester. The meetings begin with each of the members sharing personal celebrations and challenges from their week. Each story then receives the unison affirmation, "We welcome your story."

The rest of the structured meeting time is open for members to share grounding practices and discuss relevant topics. A recent group conversation touched on the role of creativity in their spiritual lives.

In addition to moments of discussion and reflection, the meetings almost always include a time for the group to sing together.

"There is an appreciation for the experience of singing together," says Thurston. "For some people that has religious meaning, and for some it does not."

The group concludes their meetings with each member naming an intention for their day or week.

On December 2, the Religious Nones joined other student groups at the annual multifaith HDS Seasons of Light service. They will also host a Noon Service in Andover Chapel on February 15, 2015.

Moving forward, Thurston hopes that the group will continue to develop as an intentional community.

"This has been a space where I feel like I am really getting to know people in a way that goes deeper than the academic, vocational, or even religious reasons why they are here at HDS."

—by Erica Long