The Nones Are Alright

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Kaya Oakes
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , October
     2015.
     208 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626981577.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book is unique in the rapidly emerging literature about those who self-describe as “nones,” or as nonreligious. The author has chosen to forego any significant discussion of the sociological, anthropological, or religious studies literature in favor of giving greater voice to the people she interviews, resulting in a volume that is dialogue-rich but limited in theoretical framework or analysis. This ethnographic and “lived religion” approach to her research captures the trajectory of Oakes’s subjects’ journeys through the sometimes painful process of becoming a “none.” In fairness, some of my comments below may be misplaced in that nowhere does Oakes claim to be a social scientist or to be conducting a social scientific study. She situates herself as a writer, a journalist, and as someone who herself struggles with belief/nonbelief and religious identity.

The stories of her interviewees are sorted by Oakes along several lines that form the basis of the chapters, including “Belonging without Believing,” “Women,” and
“Queering the Nones.” Though there are a few introductory remarks, it is in these sections that the thin theorizing and contextualization are especially regrettable. For instance, “belonging without believing” could have been a contribution to the conversation sparked by Grace Davie’s Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), which has been taken up in relation to nones by Abby Day in her book Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Similarly, the section on “queering the nones” would be usefully linked to other research such as that by Phil Zuckerman (Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), who has found that the position of many organized religions on sexuality has been a definitive factor in pushing people out of church doors, both for those identifying as LGBTQ and others. Further, there is a rich literature on gender roles and organized religion that is also unexplored by Oakes.

About half of the book focuses specifically on the struggles of Catholics with religion and belonging. This is also the author’s own struggle, and it is perhaps for this reason that this group finds greater voice here. These sections underscore a gap in knowledge about nones: how is the experience of becoming and being a none shaped by religious socialization in particular religious traditions? In other words, is being a “Mormon none” different from being a “Muslim none”? How do third-generation nones differ from those who have been raised with religion? These are not questions that are answered in this book, but are usefully posed indirectly by the author through her close attention to nones and Catholicism.

This is not a work that advances (or even seriously considers) theories of disengagement from organized religion, or that analyzes the phenomenon of nonreligion. However, The Nones are Alright will be useful for the reader who seeks greater insight into the lives of nones as described in their own words.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lori Beaman is Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kaya Oakes is author of Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint, 2012), Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture (Holt, 2009)and Telegraph (Pavement- Saw, 2007), She teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley.

Comments

S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate

I think Oakes' book is wonderfully readable and a great conversation starter with students. Teachers can provide the theory in class. The book gives, as noted, plenty of first-person accounts. 

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