The Dispatch: More from CWR...

“I don’t know and I don’t care”: On the devotion of the Nones

They have lost their sense of inquiry, their sense of wonder. They have stopped asking the big questions, and are content with no questions. Ignorance has led to apathy.

(Image: Luis Villasmil/Unsplash.com)

Karl Marx said famously that religion is the opium of the people, thereby inserting a fatal flaw into his own theory of dialectical materialism. If the march of history toward a communist society is inevitable, how can Christians or any religious people mess it up? But they do. G.K. Chesterton corrected Marx by saying that irreligion is the opium of the people. As one who believed in free will rather than in any determinist philosophies, Chesterton has proved to be the prophet who got it right.

He predicted the rise of the Nones.

As most of us know by now, it is a worrisome and certainly wearisome statistic that the preferred faith among the younger generation is “None.” By checking the box, the Nones, as they are called, have formed a large category that is as oddly empty as it sounds. And, of course, they are the fodder for unfortunate puns (as all puns are), since to the ear, their title compares them to religious women who are their extreme opposite. But paradoxically, both groups seem to be increasing their numbers.

But what of these Nones? How did they happen? Didn’t most of their parents affiliate themselves with some religion, some church, some faith? Presumably. But those parents – including millions of Catholic parents – sent their children to high schools, colleges, and universities that thoroughly undermined almost everything those parents thought they had taught their children, from faith and morals to common sense.

I would suggest that the growth of the Nones arises from three things: 1) the strange and unmerited respect for agnosticism among scholars and intellectuals, 2) the even stranger and unmerited association between science and agnosticism, and 3) ignorance.

Let’s talk about the last one first. Agnosticism means ignorance. It is the Greek version of the Latin word. Notice the same root syllable: “gno” which gives us the English word “know.” The opposite of “know” is “not know,” which is what ignorance and agnosticism both mean.

When you go to school, you are not supposed to come out ignorant. But if you come out agnostic, you have come out ignorant. The student hasn’t failed; the school has failed. Your parents should get their tax dollars back or their private tuition costs back. Or sue for damages.

But people are ignorant of what agnosticism is; they are ignorant about ignorance. In the course of the last two centuries, agnosticism has taken on some kind of noble connotation as those who think that by refusing to come to a conclusion about the most important things, they are intellectually superior to those who do. It is somehow more respectable to disbelieve than to believe. They calmly cast doubt on everything, which is the contrary of learning; it is destructive rather than instructive. You cannot build a philosophy based on doubt, and if you are not building a philosophy you are running in the opposite direction from wisdom. You are running away from reality.

Ironically, the Agnostic will claim to be the realist because he claims to base his ideas only on what he can see and prove. Chesterton says that the difference between the Agnostic and the Catholic “is that the Agnostic lives in two dimensions, and the Catholic lives in three.” The Agnostic is superficial, that is, “he can only go by the appearances of things; indeed there are no things except appearances – to all appearance. Our third dimension of depth, the idea of metaphysical or mystical ideas behind the images evoked by our senses is to him an unsupported speculation or an idle dream.”

The Catholic of course believes in material substance, but believes there is something behind it, something responsible for it other than itself. The Agnostic claims that since that thing cannot be proved, it does not concern us. He is content to describe his position, as the godfather of Agnosticism, Thomas Huxley, did: “Following reason as far as it will go.”

The Catholic would actually agree with that position. But as Chesterton points out, both the Catholic and the Agnostic tacitly agree that there is somewhere where reason will not go. The Catholic believes there is something that will go further than reason. We understand that reason alone is not enough to deal with “this business of the transcendental truths behind the veil of phenomena … This is what is meant by every mystic, by every minor poet, even by every half-consciously puzzling child, who is confronted with the question, ‘Why is a tree?’ or, ‘What are the stars for?’”

Investigating trees and stars has been the business of science. “Agnosticism,” says Chesterton, “is positively, literally and in so many words the exact contrary of Science. Science means Knowing, and Agnosticism means Not Knowing.”

Theology was once called the Divine Science. The study of God. All the other sciences are the study of secondary things:

It may or may not be possible to know; but it is necessary to know something in order to think about anything. And the Agnostic cannot really think about things in their real nature at all … His thought, even by his own account, stops at two dimensions … If he wants to think of the ultimate meaning of things he cannot. And, as a fact, he does want to. Hence arises something negative and unnatural in Agnosticism which all the greatest Agnostics have shown, even when trying to deny it.

He cannot think about ultimate things because he does not want to. Ignorance leads to apathy.

Chesterton says that even “if Agnosticism could impose silence about ultimate reality on all the scientists and sages, it could not impose it on the poets. Men of imagination would always be playing with the mystical second meaning of stone or star.”

Our age has seen the division between the arts and the sciences. This chasm is demonstrated not only in our schools, some of which have abandoned the arts all together (except for the “art schools” that have abandoned the sciences altogether), but in the ideas we value, the news we report, the unspoken and creedless philosophy by which we think, where “truth” has become a forbidden word.

“This weakness in civilization,” says Chesterton, “is best expressed by saying that it cares more for science than for truth. It prides itself on its ‘methods’ more than its results; it is satisfied with precision, discipline, good communications, rather than with the sense of reality.”

Meanwhile the Nones have stopped asking the child-like questions of “Why is a tree?” and “What are the stars for?” They have lost their sense of inquiry, their sense of wonder. They have stopped asking the big questions, and are content with no questions. Ignorance has led to apathy. They don’t know and they don’t care. They have drugged themselves on the opium of irreligion. Chesterton says, “We are not divided now into those who know and those who do not know. We are divided now into those who care and those who do not care.”

Underneath it, however, is a discontent, a dangerous discontent. Chesterton warns, “The ignorant mob, it is said, used to be dangerous by its turbulence; it is now rather dangerous by its apathy.”


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Dale Ahlquist 45 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

14 Comments

  1. Great commentary which can be further developed by weaving in considerations pertaining to the Resurrection during this season of Easter.

    These are days worthy to contemplate the Transcendent which the average None loathes since it cannot be reduced to physics, engineering, biology, chemistry, math, or computer science which leaves Nones rather boring to be around since they are only two-dimensional.

  2. I would suggest the growth of the Nones comes from the new religion of “niceness”. An ethical impulse that was indoctrinated into the young child that grows as the child does, to solve all external and internal conflicts. As niceness and sentimentality increases, courage and truth recedes. It’s easier to care about nothing than to think and fight for something. Better dead than red was the call of the sixties. Now, it’s you can’t be too safe. This saves us from tough decision making.

    • AAD, thank you for noting the ethics of Nice. Forty years ago, I was teaching in a prestigious private independent school, and I noticed the words “nice” and “mean” being used in a way unfamiliar to me. In due course, my colleagues helped me to understand that when students used “nice”, they meant it as a term of approval. When the used the word “mean”, they often used the word as a term of disapproval, in a subjective manner. For example, if I assigned a few extra pages of reading, I was once asked why I was being so mean.

  3. “The fool says in his heart, there is no God”. “There are no atheists in foxholes.” I fear that’s the nones will find out that both of these axioms are true to their peril. There is hope though, that “the great hound of heaven” will find them before it’s too late.

  4. The “Catholic” “Nones” are the result of one glaring fact — the veritable elephant in the ecclesial living room: Fewer than half of Catholic children have attended a Catholic elementary or secondary school. And the majority of pastors and bishops have done nothing about it, aside from pious platitudes about the importance of our schools during Catholic Schools Week. You reap what you sow (or don’t sow).

    • Rise of the nones surely owes itself to the unrelenting scandals, not just the sexual ones but others to do with pagan worship figures, a Pope who constantly contradicts himself. Living in Europe I am totally confused at how the church buys into climate change and unrestricted migration. Have no issue with people fleeing tyranny, but Muslim people flooding the west is another issue which could make becoming a “none” more appealing. The church appears not to understand the worries of everyday people. Then we have the utter cowardice of priests running away like headless chickens in the face of covid. Priest calling for the arrest of mask less mothers. Truthfully it is not hard to understand the rise of the nones.

    • I agree to a point, but it is ultimately the responsibility of parents to educate their children in the faith, not the schools. The vocation of marriage is not stressed by the clergy during marriage instruction, and yes all they ever seem to do is give lip service to the schools, or worse, the sorely lacking parish faih formation classes – to the detriment of good parents (especially homeschooling ones), whose children are often are excluded from receiving sacraments unless they go through some fluffy parish class.

    • Attending Catholic school does not guarantee that the religious education offered there is “Catholic.”

      My parents could not afford Catholic school tuition. By the grace of God, my mother, I, and many friends taught ourselves and our offspring that which we intuitively valued…we did this particularly in the aftermath of VCII’s switch of catechetical teaching from dogma to ‘feeling.’ Many acquaintances and their children, attending Catholic school and then Catholic university, care for material justice, but care little for grace, morality, or God’s justice.

  5. So, Chesterton and Alquist dislike philosophy? They call Agnosticism ignorance? What could be more ignorant? What are they afraid of?

    • Chesterton and Ahlquist dislike bad philosophy and poor thinking (or the lack of thinking). I suggest you read the essay more carefully and respond less glibly.

  6. Alquist points to three intellectual and moral solvents against thought and religion: Agnosticism, Scientism, and Apathy. Actually, these define the triad religion of the Nones…

    Regarding AGNOSTICISM, Thomas Huxley (1825-95), the famed English botanist, was not antireligious. He introduced the term “agnostic” or “not to know” (as in a-Gnostic). Grandfather to the better-known agnostic Julian Huxley, and offers a clue to the Nones on his own faith in science:

    “Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this” (L. Huxley, The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, 1900; cited in Stanley L. Jaki, Miracles and Physics, 1989).

    As for SCIENTISM, in a more reflective moment, the later Charles Darwin had this to say:

    “This [his] curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone [!], on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.
    “A man with a mind more highly organized or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character [!], by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. . . . My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics [!] or mathematics” (Charles Darwin in Sir Francis Darwin, ed., Charles Darwin’s Autobiography).

    And as for the APATHY of not caring, the Nones have sucked up to the random non-universe of Richard Dawkins who famously announced that all beliefs (or religions) other than his own are no more than an accident of random evolutionary give and take, that spreads to others like any other “virus” or transmittable “meme.”

    Except for the Nones, maybe we’ve had enough by now of such viruses…

  7. A suspect unfamiliar none [perhaps a none only to my perception] ambled into the Lenten gathering and sat by the lectern listening intently. Others frightened by his backpack and recent bombings confronted him politely assured he wasn’t a bomber return to their pews. The suspect bomber whom I thought a none finally ambled out seeming as impervious to everyone as when he ambled in. Good essay and discussion on agnosticism and noneism. I separate them since I’m not sure they are all devoid of a rationale for refusing the faith. Dale Ahlquist questions the none not questioning of things catching me by surprise with “Why a tree?” [I assume Ahlquist meant why are there trees?]. That’s more an existential question aimed at reality itself, Why do things exist as they are, why is there existence? A question Rene Descartes would ultimately ask in his Methodical Doubt. If we question our existence we question why we exist. Maybe kids in Ahlquist’s childhood neighborhood [perhaps a place like storied Portlandia] had that genius. I wish I had all the answers [at times I use the PhD pretending I might] then could I handle what only God can ? A common passé adage was Why ask why? It is a submit a None question. Men many of us have had enough with intellectual gymnastics [remember that adage?] that aren’t anymore convincing than other arguments. A None like my brother in law says why bother since there’s always a counter argument and some others’ conviction. Do me a favor and let me enjoy life as is. Although a priest I’m obliged to care, in fact I do very much care. And am convinced it’s not intellectual prowess or impregnable argument that convinces, rather it’s a matter of faith.

    • And in a postscript to my comment we know the None phenomenon is a matter of faith, the question how to resolve it. Fr Stravinskas rightly responds, our failure is in educating our young. Questions such as Why do we exist is answered most reasonably because of a First Principle who is God. And it’s most reasonable to establish that sensible perception of the world is our first premise for attaining knowledge. Otherwise we wander from Why we exist to Whether we exist a false proposition owned by Descartes, and by those who are not anchored in reality. And thereupon drift off into a sea of ideas inundated and either becoming fixed in a hostile Noneism or perhaps unfortunately into schizophrenic malaise. Our youth deserve better and if priests and educators have little to offer but relativism as has been the case our youth will suffer the consequences. We have immensely important catching up to do.

  8. The agnostic experiences partial paralysis of reason due to being trapped in a vicious circle of sensationalism and skepticism. The immaterial and metaphysical are inexplicable to that mind set. They are in perpetual disbelief and doubt due to habitual suspension of judgement on objects of knowledge that are not perceptible by the senses. The irreligious Nones are thereby intellectually comfortable and complacent mental midgets who cannot or will not comprehend the transcendent.

6 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Twenty-One Things That Caught My Eye Today: Easter, China, Religious Freedom & More – REAL News 45
  2. Twenty-One Things That Caught My Eye Today: Easter, China, Religious Freedom & More | All-American News
  3. Twenty-One Things That Caught My Eye Today: Easter, China, Religious Freedom & More | Fierce Patriots
  4. Twenty-One Things That Caught My Eye Today: Easter, China, Religious Freedom & More | National Review - iCatholic.ph
  5. Twenty-One Things That Caught My Eye Today: Easter, China, Religious Freedom & More – InItDeep
  6. TVESDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*