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A Salon for ‘Nones’

The Commons is drawing ‘religion-curious’ people—including atheists, agnostics, and those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’—to discuss everything from spirituality and philosophy to art and technology, in a communal space that fosters a sense of self-discovery and belonging

Maggie Phillips
April 11, 2024
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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In the Hayes Valley neighborhood in the heart of San Francisco, a group of young tech workers, artists, and thinkers are taking part in a revival of the intellectual salon, the 18th- and 19th-century tradition where the beau monde mixed with the thought leaders of their day. Nonprofits, collectives, and a small cottage industry of salon organizers have sprung up to bring them back. This iteration, a metaphysical speakeasy christened “The Commons” by founders Patricia Mou and Adi Melamed, invites members to partake in structured discussions, meditation sessions, potlucks, and concerts. It is, Mou wrote in a 2023 Substack entry, “a fourth place.” Unlike what social scientists call a “third place”—a coffee shop or a favorite bar or house of worship, where people come into regular, casual contact with each other outside work or home, gaining a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves—Mou contends that fourth places offer something richer. Conceived as an intentional meeting space, The Commons is designed to facilitate deep communal bonds and self-discovery, rather than simple social encounters. By day, members work to usher in scientific and technological progress. Even as AI-generated art and writing causes debate over the nature of the humanities, members of The Commons gather in their free time to promote—and define—human flourishing.

When we spoke in early 2023, Melamed said he noticed a few things about the people applying to be members of The Commons: They tended to be in their mid 20s to late 30s and interested in spirituality—but, he said, many lacked “a spiritual community or place to explore their spirituality in an open-ended way.” This puts them with the majority of Americans, since only 45% say they are members of a formal house of worship today. Less than a century ago, in 1937, nearly three-quarters of Americans were affiliated with a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. As recently as 1999, 70% of Americans told Gallup pollsters that they belonged to a house of worship. These days, leaders of nearly every denomination cast about for strategies to retain and attract members, especially young people, who are driving down the numbers of the religiously affiliated, and driving up the number of “nones,” who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” agnostics, or atheists. Even as Richard Dawkins makes his peace with Christianity (at least at the cultural level), rumors of a new Great Awakening may be greatly exaggerated—the Silicon Valley salon-to-church pipeline isn’t exactly congested at the moment. The Commons is attracting people who might be described as “religion-curious,” however. Members to whom I spoke indicated that their peers are interested in what centuries of religious thought and global wisdom traditions have to offer, even if they aren’t filling the pews on Sunday mornings.

Software engineer Taylor Lapeyre is a Catholic high school graduate from New Orleans. He left his faith behind in his teens, and after that, he told me, religion and spirituality had “always just kind of been on the back burner for me.” He wasn’t a likely candidate for a philosophy salon while he was an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, where his conversations focused mainly on computer science, football, “girls and getting drinks,” or even after graduation, when he began his tech career and moved to San Francisco. But he had recently begun to explore the Western literary canon when he became an early adopter of The Commons, joining shortly after it opened to the public in late 2022. Around that time, he had been passing through San Francisco’s trendy Hayes Valley area when a mysterious staircase leading below ground level intrigued him. At the bottom was The Commons. Unsure what it was or how it fit in with the hip shopping and dining that surrounded it, Lapeyre looked it up and discovered a place that invited people to come together for intellectual and spiritual inquiry. Realizing he already knew a member, he got on the email list and filled out an application to join. The application asked about his interests, and he said he was looking for people to talk with about the great books of Western civilization.

Nonreligious spaces for community have been cropping up to fill the church-shaped hole in American life.

Lapeyre had been a member for around four months when we first spoke over the phone in April 2023. But it was only the latest stop on an intellectual journey he had already begun. “I started like maybe a year-and-a-half ago just reading all the great books of the Western world,” he said at the time. It was in the course of this autodidacticism, he said, that “I really encountered my religious and spiritual side.” He said many of the people he encountered at The Commons are the “spiritual but not religious,” like him, typically raised in some faith tradition that they later abandoned, usually in their teens.

He wasn’t sure what to expect after he was accepted. Looking at pictures online, Lapeyre said he saw lots of cushions scattered on the floor (rooms are decorated by theme, with an “Oxford-style” study hall named for Hogwarts, an astrology-themed lounge with “twinkling Moroccan lights,” and something called a “Solar Punk Library”). But what he found was software engineers, like himself, and around his age (Lapeyre was 30 at the time), who were similarly eager to talk about faith, religion, and reason.

The people at The Commons are definitely the kind of people who are much more interested in philosophy,” Lapeyre said at the time. He described a recent member hangout, a potluck where he was approached about something he had written on the member Slack channel. “That was the only place I’ve ever been in my life where someone approached me about something I’d written,” he said, “and just started a philosophical debate with me on the spot.” He recalls multiple people gathering to engage in a discussion about whether older philosophers have anything to add to contemporary considerations of ethics. “A place where that can happen, just organically,” he said, “that’s kind of special.”

This potluck debate was exactly the kind of encounter that Melamed envisioned in early 2022 when he established The Commons’ GoFundMe, together with Mou.

When they met through a mutual friend, both had been thinking in parallel about similar themes. Melamed was interested in the “meaning crisis,” a term that YouTuber, philosopher, and cognitive scientist John Vervaeke helped popularize. Vervaeke defines the meaning crisis as “the loss of spiritual vitality, and the sense of disconnection we experience with other people, ourselves, and the world at large.” And Melamed was also concerned with another crisis: the “metacrisis,” a theory of humanity’s struggle to engage collectively with problems in a globalized information economy, where traditional institutions and means of relating to one another are breaking down or fragmented.

His guiding question, Melamed said, was, “How do we create a place where the ethos is one of art and play? A place where we explore for the sake of exploring and try to understand things for the sake of understanding, and try to create things for the sake of just creating things, and do that with a sense of community.”

Nonreligious spaces for community have been cropping up to fill the church-shaped hole in American life. There is the Sacred Design Lab, whose consultants translate practices from a variety of faith and wisdom traditions to help secular institutions cultivate community and connection. Peoplehood, from the creators of SoulCycle, offers a “weekly practice” for its paid members, in which “Gathers” of up to 20 people come together to share and listen. They offer other events, such as sound baths, breath work and stretching sessions, and game nights, all intended to build connection and combat loneliness.

Melamed had been fumbling around in search for his own answer to the meaning crisis for months when he met Mou. He said they realized they were working toward the same thing. “From there, it’s history,” he said.

Melamed and Mou ran a brainstorming session with friends and created a website. They found the location in Hayes Valley in the spring of 2022, and stood up the GoFundMe page that May (because of their shared emphasis on organic growth for their concept, Mou and Melamed wanted to avoid taking venture funding—a countercultural choice in Silicon Valley). By June, Melamed said, they were signing a lease, and The Commons soft-launched in August 2022.

Initially, membership at The Commons was open to Mou’s and Melamed’s own local social networks. That membership of around 100 expanded in late September of that year, he said, “to people neither Patricia nor I knew.”

The desire to understand the culture they were building drove development. “The slowness piece was important to us,” Melamed said, “especially at the beginning.” He said the intent behind the application requirement is not exclusivity, but to grow a culture centered around openness and curiosity. Melamed and Mou screen the applications themselves, he said, taking a few days every quarter to review applicants’ answers to questions about their interests, how they found The Commons, and why they want to join.

Within a few months of their soft launch, by the fall of 2022, Melamed estimated they had received between 400 and 500 applications.

In The Commons’ early months, events were one-off occasions. Members or the founders organized them. But a member brainstorming session revealed a widespread desire to meet more people and to explore topics in more depth. The Commons was reconceptualized as a campus, modeled after the platonic ideal of the undergraduate experience: four-to-eight-week-long courses centered around specific topics, where debate and discussion sprang up naturally in the course of interactions within the community. The first semester started in January 2023, and soon another 150 members joined. When I spoke to Melamed in spring 2023, The Commons had a waitlist to join.

Because of The Commons’ in-person nature, the founders knew which members were the most engaged. Community members applied to teach the courses. Others were hand-selected by Melamed and Mou.

Melamed said that a large proportion of those interested in The Commons hail from the tech sector, but that he and Mou were trying to diversify their demographics. Artists, writers, researchers, and academics had also joined, but tech is “definitely a plurality,” he said: “It’s San Francisco, so it’s hard to avoid it.” All the same, cultivating a hub for industry networking was not something that he and Mou were “super interested” in doing, said Melamed.

For Lapeyre, although spontaneous philosophical discussions were part of The Commons’ appeal, when we spoke a year later in March 2024, he said he has noticed people naturally self-sorting by interest. When he led a seminar on Plato earlier this year, he said a group of about 20 dwindled to about three or four regulars by the time they got to the Phaedrus. Attendees were “not interested in talking about love,” he said.

When I spoke with Melamed in the spring of 2023, he and Mou had been discerning what to do to accommodate what he estimated to be about five emerging “micro-communities.” That September, they launched Guilds, a system of corresponding intellectual affinity groups: Builders, Seekers, Explorers, Artists, and Citizens. Members select one to join each quarter, and their Guild circle meets regularly to discuss relevant topics more in-depth. Guild participation is augmented by Practicums, open to all Guild members, which are intended to cultivate the self, both internally and externally. A holistic wellness practicum helps relate the internal self to the physical self, for example, while a wisdom practicum engages with various spiritual and wisdom traditions to help transcend the self. Guilds meet regularly to check in with each other, and to share resources, best practices, and insights within their disciplines.

In her Substack article explaining the new Guild system, Mou provided a hypothetical member journey for John, “an artist on sabbatical” who joins the Artists Guild in the first quarter of the year. During this time, in addition to his Guild, he participates in the holistic wellness practicum, which helps him find collaborators to develop art and mental health workshops. This experience leads him to enroll in the Explorers Guild next quarter, so that he can pursue the possibility of an art and mental health nonprofit. While he is attending Explorers Guild meetups, he is also going to an “outer world” practicum, designed to help the internal self relate to the world around it. There, he learns about artists of the past, and historical understandings of mental health. When John rejoins the Artists Guild in quarter 3, he is ready to share his experiences and insights with others, and by quarter 4, he is leading his own holistic wellness practicum, and curating a curriculum informed by what he has learned. He is able to do this as a member of the Campus Council, “a loose governing body of members” who assist Melamed and Mou in “dreaming up and executing our curriculum each quarter.” In a blog post announcing Guilds, Mou said their “North Star” was collaborative groups like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Inklings” writing group, Susan B. Anthony’s women’s rights circle, and the 19th-century impressionists.

Lapeyre said that spontaneous conceptual rap sessions like the one he enjoyed early in his Commons experience are less frequent since the introduction of Guilds, but that they can still happen. He also said he is less active at The Commons now, and has forged organic connections somewhere else: the coffee hour at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal congregation that Lapeyre has begun attending over the last year since rediscovering Christianity. He found a spiritual home in the progressive social views and cerebral theology of Grace Cathedral, where the Palm Sunday sermon this year was about Soren Kierkegaard, and which offers book studies on faith and science, and classes on comparative religion.

There definitely is a longing among young people for spiritual nourishment, for spiritual direction.

He said the kind of people he has met at church are “quite different” from the people he has met at The Commons—writers, and structural (rather than software) engineers. They are all in their 30s like him, he said, “which is pretty good for San Francisco,” where only 1% of the adult population identify as Episcopalian, and over half identify as non-Christian, unaffiliated, or say they simply “don’t know.”

Melamed told me that he had found in conversations with members that they were searching for community. Those who had one might still struggle with their social support system being scattered across a large city. “A lot of folks are sort of looking for something a bit more central and lively and regular,” he said. For Lapeyre, as for many Americans for most of the 20th century, that space is at a house of worship.

In a counterintuitive sense, Lapeyre’s pivot to organized religion may be an indicator of The Commons successfully fulfilling its mission of helping members discover a fourth place. Continuing his spiritual exploration at The Commons led him initially to a Dominican Catholic church, to connect with the faith in which he was raised, then to an Episcopal cathedral, where he said he now regularly talks to the dean about philosophy. Although a house of worship is frequently classified by academics as a third place, Lapeyre finds in church the added fourth dimension Mou and Melamed are aiming for: a site of social encounter where his soul is fed in a comprehensive way.

Something else is animating The Commons members, too.

Lapeyre attended an “AI and religion” salon last year. He said participants considered how human nature will grapple with such powerful computing technology. They speculated about a future in which such a dynamic technology could challenge religious people’s understanding of God. He remembers an attendee musing about the possibility of a priestly tech class, who would interpret and explain the technology for the laity.

Lapeyre said that AI seemed “to be an impetus for some people to be thinking about ethics. It seems to be the impetus for people to think about the deepest questions around intelligence and what it means, whether souls exist.” Melamed, 25 years old when we spoke last spring, has a degree in computer science. Mou’s background is also within the tech ecosystem, in product management and consulting. In the spring of 2023, a lot of the applicants were AI-focused, Melamed told me.

Fartein Nilsen is an anthropologist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bergen, Norway. He joined The Commons last year while he was a visiting researcher at UC Berkeley. An AI salon hosted by Commons members drew him in, but “there was also something about having this friendly space in the middle of the city that intrigued me,” he said in an email from Norway. “It became sort of a sanctuary I could withdraw to when I was out and about doing my research.”

For some, AI means contending with questions about the soul. But for many, even Lapeyre concedes, the appeal of working in AI is the utility of the technology, and that “they just think it would be really cool to have a really smart computer.” Nilsen observes that the “AI bros” mainly come to The Commons on Sundays when they are open to nonmembers, since it’s a “fantastic way to meet people.”

Being a fantastic way to meet may be the key to what The Commons is offering. That people are gathering in person to discuss AI is almost more relevant than the conversation topic itself. As Derek Thompson recently noted in The Atlantic, “the United States is in the midst of a historically unprecedented decline in face-to-face socializing,” with the steepest decline among groups with declining religiosity (i.e., young people and working-class Americans). And the future of language-learning models may be easier to discuss than something as experiential and subjective as faith.

Most people Lapeyre knows through The Commons are not joining traditional houses of worship like him, although he said he knows one member who has converted to Orthodox Christianity. Another contact at The Commons reached out to him about a Grace Cathedral sermon she read about philosophy. She invited him to a philosophy discussion group she hosts, he said. Although not religious herself, she told him she finds some of the ideas interesting, and said she may host a session in the future about “something like” whether God is conceptually necessary to ground a moral framework. This analytic distance is characteristic of the approach to religion he sees in his peers: They may be open to the idea of the divine, perhaps maintaining a personal meditation practice, but they still tend to keep organized religion at arm’s length. To Lapeyre, this is a logical reaction. It shows an appreciation for the weirdness of religion that he wishes he saw among the many religious people he knows, who take their faith for granted. “I’m actually displeased with many of the propensities of mainline Protestantism,” he said. “I think it’s too anodyne. It’s not normal. Nothing about religion is normal.”

Right now, “it’s hard not to take AI seriously here,” Lapeyre said. “But you find a lot of religious people who don’t take their religion seriously.” He approaches faith with the awed reverence that AI attracts from both its admirers and detractors. “Religion is scary,” he said. “It should be scary. It should be important. It should make you question many, many things that you think are normal. If you read the New Testament very seriously, it’s quite scary.”

Not everyone is scared off. Since COVID, being able to see a service online before you go in person seems to have mitigated the intimidation factor for some. That’s the observation of Grace Cathedral Dean Malcolm Young, author of the Kierkegaard homilies. He said that Grace Cathedral saw 25 baptisms and confirmations this past Easter, the majority in their 20s and 30s. “There’s just so much happening in San Francisco,” he said, “It’s great to be a Gothic cathedral in Silicon Valley,” where soaring 100-foot ceilings, pointed arches, and stained-glass windows are attracting young people looking for something ancient and rooted in tradition. There is, he said, “a seeking, searching” part of the city that leads San Franciscans to his cathedral, where they can participate in traditional Christian worship forms like Gregorian chant and Evensong, or practices from other spiritual traditions: sound baths, yoga, and dharma talks. “There definitely is a longing among young people for spiritual nourishment, for spiritual direction,” he said. “I think young people today, a lot of them are just coming alive to the fact that there’s more to life than just like feeding ourselves, or having a good career. There’s a sense of awe and wonder in the face of the beauty of the universe, which is a huge, important part of what it means to be a human being.” 

Nilsen sees the possibility for something new to emerge from this ferment, the way it has in the past. “Certain technologies, especially media technologies, seem to have a sort of enchanting effect,” he said. “Think of the telegraph and the rise of spiritism. Religion is intimately tied to technology. To give an older example, all three of the major Abrahamic religions are the result of two technologies—the written word and the book. They simply could not exist as they do today without these technologies. Furthermore, Protestantism is a direct result of the printing press. You get the point. Technology seems to spur religious creativity.”

Lapeyre observes that San Francisco is a place of transients, where bright young people come to make their money before heading elsewhere to establish themselves. Even as religiosity declines, it may be too early to say whether these young software engineers and AI bros crossing paths to examine different philosophies and beliefs will have an impact on the trend. Nilsen jokes that California feels like Roman Palestine, “at the edge of a great empire,” with a mélange of cultural and religious influences. “My experience on the West Coast is that people are searching for personal and individualized experiences,” he said. “The resulting spiritual expressions can be quite fascinating.”

“There’s a spirit that the city has,” Young said, “of inquiry and openness and trying things. It’s just not a surprise that so many companies are invented here, that Burning Man was invented here.”

The Pax Romana gave rise to Christianity. The fringes of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires of late antiquity set the stage for the spread of Islam. “Maybe we’ll see a new world religion coming out of California in the next centuries,” Nilsen said. “Who knows?”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.