A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to some people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secularists or humanists.
When pollsters ask about religious affiliation these days, most of these folks would fit in the "nones" category, which means that of the long list of possible religions with which they might identify, they choose "none of the above."
(Scholars who study religious affiliation now call Oregon, Washington and Alaska the "None Zone" because fewer people in that region affiliate with a religion than in any other part of the United States.)
It's worth asking what people who pledge allegiance to one religion or another can learn from people who don't -- and not so the former group can talk the latter into converting. Rather, I find that talking with them and listening to their points of view challenges me to be clearer about my beliefs.
But, you might ask, in a nation with a long and important religious history, do the "nones" really matter?
For one thing, the most recent Gallup polling data say 9 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation, which would mean more than 25 million "nones" in our midst.
I'm a Presbyterian, and there are fewer than 3 million in our denomination, so in a Nones-vs.-Presbyterian picnic tug of war, I know what team to bet on.
In estimating such numbers, it's helpful to be cautious about how one defines atheism, agnosticism and humanism. It turns out that -- like the sometimes-bewildering world of religion -- the world of the nones is pretty complicated, too.
Another point of commonality is that just as some people of faith can be overbearing and obnoxious about their beliefs, so, too, can some of the nones. For Christmas, someone gave me a copy of comedian George Carlin's book "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?" I like some of Carlin on stage, but his anti-religion rants in this book often are sophomoric and tedious.
By contrast, many others among the nones offer useful challenges in a thoughtful way.
Not long ago, for instance, I corresponded with a reader in New Jersey who thought that my words in a column about the sacredness of work were so much bosh. He had trouble imagining that much of anything is sacred, though he did me the honor saying he had "a modicum of respect" for me.
The man said that "one of the great evils in this vale of tears is religion. ... You have only one thing in this thing called life that belongs to you, and it's not your house or your cat or your wardrobe or your wife or your children. It's your mind and your ability to think for yourself. ... Religion takes that away. It causes people to fly planes into buildings."
The charge that religion can be distorted and used to justify evil is true. The history of our planet, in many ways, consists in an accounting of ways we have done each other in, often with the presumed blessing -- if not active encouragement -- of God. And this destruction is what makes news because news, by definition, is a deviation from the norm.
What is the norm? Good-hearted though fallible people going about their lives in ways that try to lift up others. It generally is not news that faith communities comfort the afflicted, feed the hungry, clothe the naked or house the homeless. But it is news when people kill others to promote their view of God.
'Easy way out'
A recent e-mail from a "none" in Georgia wisely pointed out that "we humans have an almost irresistible urge to attribute anything we don't understand to the action or inaction of 'God."' He called this tendency "the easy way out," and too often he's right.
Let me recommend a new book I've so far only skimmed: "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism," by Susan Jacoby. In it, she suggests that people devoted to various forms of secularism call themselves "freethinkers."
"The combination of free and thought," she writes, "embodies every ideal that secularists still hold out to a nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human hopes for a more just earth."
Jacoby's work, I think, is more evidence that people with faith can learn by listening to people without it. But people with faith also have much to teach, and, in the end, I stand with them.
X Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Informatio Services.