Like her fellow nones, Corinna Nicolaou claims no religious affiliation— a growing trend among Americans. To find out what she might be missing, the writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, and more began attending services of major faith traditions around the country. Her experiences are featured in A None’s Story: Searching for Meaning Inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam (Columbia University Press, April 5).
What motivated you to write the book?
I grew up in a very secular household, and I was just personally really curious about religion. I didn’t know where to start, and I was probably strangely open-minded. And then this data started coming out [about the growth of nones] and I was like, that’s me, and there were other people who feel this way. I was living in Washington D.C. and working for the government when 9/11 happened. So that kind of brought up all of these issues— was I an atheist? Because in the aftermath of 9/11 there was that whole new slew of books by authors like Christopher Hitchens that were really railing against religion. I wanted to know and make up my own mind what was going on here.
Why do you think the number of nones is growing, and what does it mean?
I think it’s a statement—it seems like it’s a lack of action because it’s the absence of selection, but I think the absence of selection is selection— it’s the statement. And it is a really deeply political statement, and an important cultural statement. It’s really one of exhaustion about disagreements and conflict, the having to be right, it is a giant statement of “I don’t know,” and it’s not important to be right. I feel like it is one of the most significant cultural trends to exist in our time.
Can you share some highlights from A None’s Story and what you experienced visiting different houses of worship?
Pretty much every portion of the journey had something that was just embarrassing and awkward. But the funniest might be when I went to the Zen temple and tried to participate in what is supposed to be the eating of breakfast and a meditation ceremony at the same time [oryoki]. At first I had to go beforehand to basically get a lesson on it and then I got to participate in it. But it is so intricate and so detailed, and it’s supposed to be peaceful for everyone else, so for me it was like this exercise in being paranoid that I was going to mess up. It was hilarious; I mean it was hilarious to me. It was just another one of these instances where something that is so common to somebody else—a sort of worshipful practice that is second nature to others—can make you feel like just the goofiest outsider imaginable.
One of the experiences that was the most profound was when I got permission to go into the Pentagon. Where the plane hit on 9/11 has been converted into a multi-faith chapel. It was a real full-circle moment, because it was at the end of this journey, and it was what began it, in a funny way, having worked just a couple miles away when 9/11 happened. I had been trying to get permission to visit that chapel for months, and then it suddenly came through, it was like a miracle.
How did the overall experience change you and impact your life?
It has shown me the importance of, just in small, small everyday details, the teachings from a lot of the faiths. It’s given me these sort of tools to express and recognize gratitude from Judaism and to appreciate and be more present in the moments of my day, which I got from Buddhism, to feel more connected to humanity in a larger way, which I got from Islam, and this way of feeling strength in my vulnerability, which I got from Islam and Christianity. It has changed me in countless ways that I’m still discovering and made me a more appreciative, grateful person.
What would your advice be to other nones who are wondering what religion might offer them?
To experience it for yourself. That’s the wonderful thing; we live in these communities that have places of worship all over. And you can just go. That’s the other beautiful thing: Anyone, as far as I could tell, is welcome to come in, and I just went in. I would say just go. And you don’t have to stay or be there forever, but I think just the experience of going, of being vulnerable and then exploring, alters you.