by Maggie Helmick, MTS ’23
Editor’s Note: Maggie Helmick, MTS ’23, shares her personal experience as a religiously unaffiliated student at HDS.
First things first, who or what is a religious none? The term “religious none” refers to someone who is religiously unaffiliated – a very broad category. Someone who identifies as, or could be considered to be, a religious none may be atheistic, agnostic, spiritual, or even religious without identifying with any religion in particular. This means that there are nones who do not believe in God in any form and who are totally uninterested in partaking in religion altogether, but there are also nones who are deeply religious or spiritual but who choose not to identify themselves with institutional forms of religion for one reason or another. This sweeping classification is the fastest growing religiously-related group among young people in the United States, Western Europe, and Latin America.1 HDS itself is no stranger to religious nones in the classroom, both as students and as topics of study.
So, what does that look like on our campus? The prominence of religious nones in our contemporary world is not overlooked in the study of religion as it is practiced and taught at HDS. From classes like Dr. Frank Clooney’s Who Needs God, that asks who God is and by whom God may be needed, to Dr. Monica Sanford’s History of Non-Religious Movements in the US, which explores unconventional orientations towards institutionalized religion, religious nones are found built into syllabi and curriculums across our school. Outside of the classroom, the presence of religious nones can be seen through and in our student organizations. HDS Religiously Redefining is a student group for those who are exploring or challenging the beliefs, boundaries, and practices of their current religious and spiritual affiliations, practices, and identities, including religious nones. Additionally, HDS has many student groups that are not religiously affiliated at all and which can be welcoming spaces for religious nones, like our HDS Movement and Spirituality Club, as well as Love You, Miss You: A Peer Led Grief Support Circle at HDS.
All that said, what is the actual experience of attending HDS like for someone who could be considered a religious none? Well, let me tell you! As we’ve already established, the category of “religious none” is enormously broad, so I want to be clear that I am only speaking from my own experience as someone who is and has always been religiously unaffiliated and is commonly grouped into the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ crew.
Coming into HDS, I’m not sure I had ever even heard of religious nones before. My own relationship to religion and spirituality was something I thought about a lot in a personal sense, but I never did consider what it would mean for my experience at a divinity school. I majored in religious studies in undergrad, primarily because I was excited by the insights religion provided into people’s cultures and worldviews, and, honestly, because I really liked the teaching staff for religion classes. In fact, I think that latter element played a much greater role in my outlook on my own engagement with religious studies than I had ever considered before reflecting on my own experience for this post, because the professor I took nearly all of my religion classes with and who formed the basis of my engagement with religious studies was an atheist, by my understanding. Perhaps, having a mentor who could also be considered a religious none allowed me to see, subconsciously, what my role within this discipline could be, and may be the reason I have never really questioned my place within the academic study of religion.
Looking back on my time at HDS thus far, I suppose I have confronted my religious-none-ness in a few different ways as a student. I definitely have encountered situations in which a certain base level of knowledge about any given religion, but typically biblically-based traditions, has been assumed, and which left me feeling a bit ill equipped to participate in the conversation, as I am not personally familiar with the tradition, and it has not been an academic focus of mine. In those circumstances, though, I quickly learned that I was rarely, if ever, the only one feeling that way, and if I simply asked the individual to elaborate a bit on what they were basing their question or statement on for those who aren’t as familiar, they are typically happy to oblige – and to do so in a way that is not at all demeaning. Alternatively, though, I love that I can explore religious texts and concepts without any preconceived notions of what I am supposed to think about them or what they are intended to mean. Similarly, I find that I have little difficulty at all in bracketing my own beliefs in order to put myself into the mindset of a believer of any given religious tradition, something that may be harder for people with a more deep set traditional belief system. Finally, I think being religiously unaffiliated often leaves more room for questioning and humility towards that which I do not, or cannot, know, and that is something I’m grateful for.
Ultimately, my religious none status has been far more of a blessing than a curse to me in my time at HDS and within the field of religious studies in general. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the academic study of religion at a school like HDS is not about attempting to convert individuals into the religion they are learning about, or into any religion at all. Instead, it is exploring religions and religiosity for what they are, what they have been, and what they could be. This can absolutely be pursued by someone who is religiously affiliated, but in my opinion, it is just as accessible and attainable for those who are not. The more perspectives the better.