Book Review–“The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated”

I read James Emery White’s The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (2014) this morning in preparation for a new specific topics course I am teaching this spring–Atheists, Other “Heathens,” and 20th C. United States.

White writes from the perspective of a long time pastor and a follower of Protestant Christian theology and for an audience of people seeking to build their church rolls. Most problematic, he believes that Protestants in the United States must reject secularism and “must do whatever it takes” to force the United States and its peoples into Protestant lifestyles. Throughout his work, White is unwilling to recognize that there are (and always have been) people who deliberately do not want religion in their life and in sharp contrast to Why Christianity Must Change or Die, White is equally unable to acknowledge religion’s on-going problems. 

The Rise of the Nones does not trace the rise of atheism or agnosticism per se but the rise of people who do not specifically identify with traditional organized religion and who do not maintain traditional church memberships. The rise of people who are only spiritual or who find their God in anything/everything concerns White greatly. And “atheists” or “agnostics” basically do not exist in White’s world. 

While ignoring the role of science during the last twenty years, as well as the egregious behavior of far too many Fundamentalist Christians during the same time, White takes the majority of an entire chapter to criticize Darwin’s and Freud’s groundbreaking discoveries for contributing to the long decline of Christianity! White seems to have no grasp of how their theories–even where ultimately flawed or incomplete–transformed the world in important, life-saving ways. White also fails to grasp the Hummingbird Effect–or basically how their ideas were products of their times and places and were connected to other manifestations of Modernism. Darwinism and Freudianism–even if by different names–were inevitable.

White further criticizes people who do not yield judgement on others. White longs for a world where Protestant Christianity dictates what is right and wrong and where there are what he calls “absolutes.” So much for, do not judgeHe even rejects views that embraces consent, no harm, and happiness as sound guides to good morality. Throughout The Rise of the Nones, White is critical of any kind of complexity. On numerous occasions, he very clearly misrepresents or misunderstands contemporary postmodernism and poststructuralism.

White makes it very clear that he stands against Queer people/LGBTQQIAAP people and the culture that and people who use Facebook, iPhones, and other such products because they are too focused on “me” and the “i.”

And he hates Wikipedia! While it had problems in the past, scholars increasingly have deemed it an excellent resource and better than traditional encyclopedias. 

Even further surprising: in part by citing FoxNews (!!), White is critical of Catholics and suggests on at least some level that they are not even Christians.  

While on the note of evidence, White almost exclusively cites Websites when there are credible books available that would provided nuance and sophistication. In other cases, he presents anecdotal data–in sloppy ways–as if it were produced in regular scientific studies. 

Maybe not as surprising, he strongly dislikes churches that use modern music.

I did not read part two anywhere near as closely because it was much more a step-by-step guide to–in his view–convert people and because it came after the FoxNews citation, which caused his credibility to drop a great deal immediately. (And it was not a citation critically analyzing FoxNews, to be clear.) 

The Rise of the Nones does not truly seek to understand and accept “the nones” from its refusal to fully acknowledge the scope of their reasons or the true extent to which they are “the nones.” Moreover, White clearly wishes to live in a theocracy. While the Untied States is too much of a theocracy already, his positions effectively advocate further dismantling laws and traditions.

Why do more and more ministers and politicians want to live without any notion of democracy? Why do they hate the United States? Why do they hate diversity? 

Give the further rise of Trumpism, White’s view that Protestant Christianity must spread by any means necessary is particularly alarming, especially because we see people like him doing that right now and we are seeing how this leads to further violence. White effectively believes that only his positions are correct and that everyone else is doomed to hell. 

If only all people could recognize how complex the world is and how consequential their actions are:

In every historical example, missionaries pave the way for other colonizers and capitalists, and often, are themselves the colonizers and capitalists, with intention to dispossess and accumulate whatever they can, including but not limited to souls, land, labor: there are no missionaries with good intentions.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda