Students like Angie Thurston are part of a boomlet of divinity-school students who are secular or are unaffiliated with any religious denomination. Whether atheists or spiritual seekers, many are drawn to ideas about values, sacredness, social justice.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. —
During orientation at Harvard Divinity School in 2013, Angie Thurston wandered amid tables set up by the various campus ministries. Roman Catholic, Methodist and Muslim, they mostly served to reinforce the sense that Thurston did not fit into an organized religion.
She was starting her graduate studies in religion when she did not know the definition of liturgy, had never read the Bible and could not have identified a major theologian such as Karl Barth, even if it would have won her a fortune on “Jeopardy!” Yet something in organized religion hinted at an answer to the unmoored life she led.
A gathering of faiths
Visitors from 80 countries and 50 religions are participating an interfaith conference being held in the United States for the first time since 1993. The Parliament of the World’s Religions began in Salt Lake City with a processional Thursday at the Salt Palace. The assembly’s mission is to hold conversations among diverse faiths about problems such as war, hatred, climate change, wastefulness and income inequality.
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“I didn’t feel unwelcome, but I did feel like it was a call to creativity,” Thurston, 30, recalled of her initiation. “I wanted to respond to what I saw as a crisis of isolation among young people.”
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She added: “I wanted to create a meaningful community that came together based on a shared goal rather than a shared religious creed.”
From such an unlikely beginning — a self-described “religious weirdo” enrolling in an elite divinity school — has grown a fascinating phenomenon. Now in her final year at Harvard, Thurston is a central figure in a boomlet of divinity-school students who are secular or are unaffiliated with any religious denomination, commonly known as “nones.”
While Harvard may be the center, nones can be found at other divinity schools, especially those inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism, such as the Chicago Theological Seminary.
Two factors are driving this surge. First, the proportion of nones in the United States has grown to about one-third of all millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, according to the Pew Research Center. Second, divinity school offers even atheists and spiritual seekers a language of moral discourse and training in congregational leadership. The traits appeal to nones who aspire to careers in activism, social work, chaplaincy or community organizing rather than taking to a pulpit.
“Nones are not entirely opposed to religious traditions, though they don’t attach to a specific one,” said Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, who has seen the trend while visiting campuses. “No small part of them are attracted to the search for social justice and for spiritual meaning. And they recognize those things as the fruits of religious tradition. So it makes sense to go to a place where you can study religious tradition.”
A discipline all its own
Within higher education, divinity programs often stand apart from the cult of relativism in the liberal arts and the utilitarian emphasis in professional schools that focus on business and law, for example.
“If you were simply looking for the skills, you might go to the Kennedy School of Government,” said the Rev. Dudley Rose, associate dean for ministry studies at Harvard. “And philosophy and liberal-arts fields have given up on the project of finding a moral language, an articulation of values. That language isn’t found in many places. And when you find it, it’s not easy to abstract it. You have to connect it to a tradition.”
In Harvard’s case, the influx of secular and unaffiliated students had one early and visible pioneer, Greg Epstein. In 2004, while serving as the assistant humanist chaplain serving Harvard students and staff members who are atheist or agnostic, Epstein enrolled in divinity school.
He took classes in everything from existentialist philosophy to musicology to nonprofit administration, and he did a practicum in ministry with a cohort of Unitarian Universalist students, the closest thing he could find to atheists.
By the time he graduated in 2007, Epstein could see a “trickle” of other humanist students entering the divinity school, and he set out to recruit more.
“I see myself like a college football coach,” said Epstein, who comes by the metaphor honestly as an alumnus of the University of Michigan. “I want to constantly be bringing in new talent.”
On campus, Epstein replaced the retiring humanist chaplain. Off campus, he put together a community center, the Humanist Hub. In both guises, he differed from prominent atheists by adapting some of organized religion’s models of ritual, moral language and communal purpose rather than merely denouncing belief as superstition.
Thurston, for example, applied to Harvard Divinity School specifically because of what she knew about Epstein’s work. She does not consider herself secular, rather she follows the precepts of the Urantia Book, a 2,000-page work of philosophy and spirituality that has some elements of Christianity. She also critiques terms like nones and unaffiliated, and the phrase “spiritual, but not religious.”
“It’s difficult to foster community based on negation, on saying what you aren’t,” she said.
A group Thurston helped start, Harvard Religious Nones, includes almost 70 people on its email list and regularly attracts 20 people to its meetings. The divinity school also has a humanist group with about a half-dozen members.
One classmate, Casper ter Kuile, and a recent divinity-school graduate, Vanessa Zoltan, teach a weekly course together for about 55 people on “Harry Potter” as a sacred text at the off-campus Humanist Hub. This weekend, Thurston and her collaborator Aisha Ansano are holding a workshop about the Harvard Religious Nones at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City.
Finding direction in ethics
Zoltan typifies the portion of Harvard Divinity School students who are avowedly secular. Growing up in suburban Los Angeles as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and the child of fervent atheists, she partook in Shabbat dinners and attended a Hebrew school purely as forms of cultural affirmation.
“Our family felt like, ‘God isn’t just dead, but if he’s real, he hates us,’ ” she recalled. “I was raised to believe that humans are what matter. And art. We worshipped movies and books. Our bible was everything from Neil Simon to the Russian novelists.”
Yet when Zoltan attended graduate school at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for nonprofit management, she rejected the capitalist theology there that the market is a value system. The Great Recession proved to her, she recalled, “Your way is wrong.”
A course in ethics, though, began to point her in an unexpected direction. She slowly came to recognize that the people she admired most — Gandhi, King, Emerson, Tolstoy and Alcott — had deep religious or spiritual lives.
“It was in the back of my head that Judaism has answers, that there were laws and the laws were based in ethics,” Zoltan, 33, said. “I kept saying, ‘I should’ve gone to Div School,’ and my boyfriend said, ‘Why don’t you try?’ ”
At Harvard, she said, she opened up to the possibility of a deity. Every time, the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide or the Syrian civil war convinced her nothing supernatural existed.
The concept of sacredness, however, gripped her, and she sought ways to consecrate the secular. With a divinity-school professor, Stephanie Paulsell, she did an independent study in “Jane Eyre” as a holy book. Epstein and she studied Judaic texts together in the yeshiva system of chavruta, meaning fellowship.
“I got inspired,” she said. “I’d spent a lot of my 20s being disappointed by grad school and the nonprofit world. And at div school, people are excited. They get Alice-in-Wonderland lost in theology. It made me happy.”