In an early chapter of Atheism For Dummies, I wrote an imaginary conversation about labels:
Q: Do you think God exists?
Me: No, I’m an atheist.
Q: But are you absolutely certain?
Me: Of course not. I’m an agnostic.
Q: And do you believe as you do because some authority told you to?
Me: No, I’m a freethinker.
Q: And if there’s no God, who do you think will take care of us?
Me: I think it’s up to us to do that. I’m a humanist.
We nonreligious often have a near-mystical faith in the power of just the right word to capture who and what we are. If only we’d all commit to Label X, we would at last be understood. Powerful. Loved by our emotionally-unavailable mothers.
Sorry, where was I.
Each of those labels says something different about me, and none does the whole trick, and that’s fine. If my mother-in-law can be religious and a Christian and a Protestant and a Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879 because each describes a different aspect or degree of how she sees the world, then I can use different terms to describe aspects and degrees of how I see the world. And we don’t have to all settle on one.
You’ll find all of those labels for the nonreligious in use at OnlySky and more, like nonreligious itself. And there’s one more lovely and underused term we’ll be leaning into: post-religious.
The word “post-religious” first surfaced in the American Journal of Sociology a century ago to describe a time or society in which most people are no longer religious. Although that describes many countries today, including the UK, the US is still well short of a nonreligious majority (though making progress). So we’re also well short of being post-religious at the society level.
But bring it to the level of the individual, and post-religious can be a useful way of describing where you are relative to our dominant cultural narrative.
Leaving religion behind is a process, and it’s not the same for everyone. A lot depends on the flavor of religion you’re leaving, your experience with it, your family situation, your scars if any. Even after you leave, and even if you were relatively asymptomatic, it can loom over you for years. For one thing, it’s hard to let go of the fact that such a thing has kept most of humanity in thrall for millennia, especially when that included you and still includes people you love. So we grapple and argue and hammer away at facts as if its staying power has anything to do with facts. Or maybe we miss some part of it, like the sense of social belonging, then hate ourselves for missing it. And we try on different labels, and join groups, and quit groups, all while grappling with The Thing That Looms.
Even though I was never a conventional believer, religion shadowed me for a good 25 years, derailing one career and launching another, always looming, still partly defining the space I lived and thought in, a part of every day.
And then, at some point, if we’re lucky, we come out the other end. Religion is still present, but it no longer looms. It’s fallen into the background hum of culture. It plays no greater part in your thinking or decision-making than anything else in the world, even as a foil or nemesis. That’s post-religious. And in the headspace it leaves behind, you can find and articulate who you are and what the world looks like with one natural world and one mortal life as a starting point, not as something wrested away from the jealous grips of a competing worldview.
My secular worldview affects the way I see almost everything in the world. History looks different from a secular perspective. Culture looks different, race and gender, biology, geology, psychology, life and death. Even the arts are different when you understand the real source of inspiration and why we see certain things as shocking, indifferent, or beautiful.
Clearing my headspace doesn’t mean granting immunity. When any ideology fuels hatred, curtails rights, or storms the Capitol, I can oppose it just as vigorously as ever. And I actually feel more effective when I do, because I do so with a clearer sense of who I am and the positive values I’m rooted in.
Some people don’t have the same privilege to get about the business of a post-religious life. Religion is not looming—it’s sitting on their necks. But a large and rapidly growing number, especially younger Millennials and Gen Z, are already post-religious. While they are increasingly secular, religion is increasingly irrelevant to the 18-to-39s. They are more likely to have been raised secularly, for one thing, which means skipping the painful separation from a family identity. And their religious peers are generally much less toxic about their beliefs than previous generations have been. Less looming to begin with gives these young seculars a head start on figuring out the world and their place in it.
So if you find the term useful, help yourself. If not, I won’t insist. But now you’ll know what we mean when we use it here, and the space we’re trying to prepare for anyone else who might like to experience that new starting point, beyond the grapple.