Secular, but Feeling a Call to Divinity School

  • 2015-10-22
  • The New York Times

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — During orientation at Harvard Divinity School here in 2013, Angie Thurston wandered amid the tables set up by the various campus ministries. Catholic, Methodist, Muslim — they mostly served to reinforce the sense that Ms. Thurston did not fit into an organized religion.

Here 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 like Karl Barth, even if it would have won her a fortune on “Jeopardy!” Yet something in organized religion hinted at an answer to the atomized, unmoored life she led.

“I didn’t feel unwelcome, but I did feel like it was a call to creativity,” Ms. Thurston, 30, recalled of her initiation. “I wanted to respond to what I saw as a crisis of isolation among young people.”

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, Ms. Thurston is a central figure in a boomlet of students who are secular or unaffiliated with any religious denomination, commonly known as “nones,” attending divinity school. While Harvard may be the center, nones can be found at other divinity schools around the country, especially those inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism, like Chicago Theological Seminary.