Driving along Empire Avenue, on my way to Tim Hortons for my daily chili lunch, I turned on CBC Radio. I landed in the midst of an interview with Anne Rice — bestselling author of vampire novels and, lately, of fictional lives of Jesus — in which she elaborated on her recent decision to “quit Christianity.”
A few years ago, Rice had come out publicly as a “Christian” and had vowed to devote her writing from then on to religious and biblical topics.
She has done this not only in her confessional, religious autobiography, “Called out of Darkness,” but also in the series Christ the Lord, which includes two fictional lives of Jesus, “Out of Egypt” and “The Road to Cana.”
Then, a few weeks ago, Rice announced that she had “quit Christianity” because of the personal disappointments she had experienced with organized religion.
“Today I quit being a Christian,” Rice wrote. “I’m out.”
Those who prematurely might have hoped that her disillusionment translated into rejecting faith altogether were quickly disappointed.
“I remain committed to Christ as always,” she continued, “but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity.”
After trying it for 10 years, she admitted failure and the basic incompatibility of organized religion with her conscience.
In a subsequent message, Rice explained the motivation for her startling decision.
“I’m out,” she wrote. “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”
Far then from being a disciple of Dawkins, Hitchens and company, Rice retains a strong religious orientation; faith in Christ is central to her life.
“My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God,” she wrote a few weeks ago, “is crucial to me.”
Christ continues to be for her “infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”
While I listened to her interview on the radio, she expressed with some anguish the loss of the sacramental and esthetic rewards that she so much treasured in Roman Catholicism, a void she now fills with her personal devotions, which remain central to her life.
The celebrated writer thus joined a growing group of people who fall into the “No Religion” demographic category of the census, which in Canada is weakest in Newfoundland and the Atlantic region and strongest on Canada’s West Coast and the Northwest Territories.
Reginald Bibby, the leading Canadian religious demographer, points out, however, that among people in this group, only a very small percentage are committed atheists.
Many people who do not participate in any form of organized religion still have personal faith commitments.
Bibby makes the helpful distinction that religiously unaffiliated people fall into three categories: Nevers, Nones and Nots.
“In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.” Ann Rice
“Nevers” are those contemporaries who never attend religious services of any kind for a variety of reasons.
Identify with tradition
In a research note, Bibby warns, however, that “there is no reason to assume that, just because someone ‘never’ attends services, he or she has ceased to identify with a religious tradition.”
While Anne Rice now clearly rejects any form of organized Christianity, she engages in private devotions and her faith is still informed by beliefs that stand squarely in the classical Christian tradition.
She may have quit contemporary Christianity, but her principal source of inspiration, the Bible, originated as a book of the church.
“Nones,” according to Bibby, are people who no longer identify themselves with any religion.
But here the sociologist found in his polling that these people often reject religion only temporarily and often rejoin a religious group — in the case of young people, the religion of their parents.
Whether the not-so-young Anne Rice follows this pattern and one day will be reconciled with organized religion, only time will tell.
“Nots” are people who no longer believe in God. Such a position, however, is by no means a clear indicator of a lack in a wider purpose of life or even of spirituality, and some, paradoxically, still have degrees of affiliation. Only a small minority are die-hard ideological atheists who also never attend churches and refuse to identify with religious organizations.
Bibby’s polling from 1975 to 2005 has shown a Canada-wide increase in religious Nevers from 18 per cent to 23 per cent, and Nones from 9 per cent to 15 per cent. Nots rose slightly from 1975 to 1995, from 6 per cent to 9 per cent, only to drop again in 2005 to 7 per cent.
The conclusion the sociologist draws from his polling is “that non-religiousness in its varied forms — non-affiliation, non-attendance and disbelief — has been overestimated” and that even “among people who have readily been assigned such labels, there appears to be considerable latent religious life.”
While Anne Rice has joined the combined grouping of Nevers and Nones, her strong and explicit personal commitment to faith in Christ by no means indicates increasing secularization or the demise of “religion.”
Hans Rollmann is professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.