The backlash of institutions (and their spokespeople) against “Spiritual but not Religious”

Another week, another study. There are some remarkable numbers here. Among those aged 18-24, 32% prefer no religion; of those between the ages of 25 and 34, 29% claim “no religion;” Among those 35-44, only 19%. But underneath those headlines lies  a more complex reality. They may have no religious affiliation but the vast majority of Americans continue to express belief in God or belief in a higher power. The percentage of those identifying as atheist (3.1%) or agnost (5.6%) remains very small.

This study, as others before it, makes clear that while institutional affiliation may be falling dramatically, religious belief and practice are not declining significantly.

Gary Laderman, chair of the Religion Department at Emory University and scholar of American Religion, points out that the rise of the “nones” means the study of Religion in America is more interesting than ever. He gives several reasons for the rise, one of them is:

Finally, the rise of the “nones” surely suggests it is the end of religion as we know it. Forget churches; forget priests and pastors; forget the Bible; forget organized religion generally. What is sacred are no longer conventional objects like a cross, a singular religious identity like being a Methodist, nor activities like going to church or prayer. Instead, the religious worlds in the contemporary and future United States are robust and capacious, providing an abundance of spiritual possibilities found in unexpected places like drum circles and meditation exercises, sports events and other expressions from popular culture. It is a brave new world for religious Americans who are increasingly unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions.

Elizabeth Drescher is studying the prayer practices of the “nones” and has some pointed questions about prayer divorced from religious traditions and communities.

I’ve blogged about Lillian Daniel’s views before. Her recent book continues to garner interest. I’m not exactly sure who she’s writing for, to reassure those of us who are caretakers of traditional religious institutions are doing valuable work? Is she trying to convince the SBNR folks that their efforts to make meaning in their life are of little value? At least she doesn’t harangue them quite like Rabbi David Wolpe.

One one level, all this consternation from religious institutions and their representatives about the nones reminds me of the complaints throughout history of pastors, theologians, bishops, and other insiders about the behavior of their flocks. In the fourth century, Ambrose worried that the faithful were going out of the city to martyrs’ shrines and not attending his sermons. In the Middle Ages, preachers and priests complained that people didn’t pay attention to sermons or came only when they heard the sanctus bell that indicated the moment of the consecration of the host. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Protestant preachers also complained that attendance at services was poor and devotion languished. Had you asked those who were criticized for their lukewarm faith and behavior, I’ve no doubt they would have responded by saying they were good Christians. They just weren’t the sort of Christians their leaders wanted them to be.

The fact of the matter is that throughout the history of Christianity, indeed, throughout the history of religion, there has been a disconnect between what institutions and sacred experts wanted in terms of behavior (and doctrinal purity) of their communities, and what ordinary men and women actually did religiously, and how they understood and appropriated what they did. What we are seeing is not so much a decline in religious practice or belief, but rather a decline in the understanding that religious practice and belief must be tied to religious institutions. They are free of the religious expectations imposed on them from above.

The question, then, is not how to get people back into the pews, but rather, how can we connect with people who no longer automatically see us as valuable experts on religion or even as valuable spiritual guides? How can we encounter them where they are, invite them to ask their questions, encourage them to enter more deeply into the rich spiritual traditions of Christianity, but at the same time recognize that they may never join the Altar Guild. It’s likely, however, that if we have concrete outreach opportunities for them to engage, they will work side by side with us. To succeed with the nones may not mean getting them to join our churches. Instead, it may mean recognizing the legitimacy of their spiritual journeys and engaging them there, rather than trying to force them to engage us on our terms.

The Changing Sea Project is exploring the spirituality of emerging adults and their relationship with religious institutions. More on the spirituality and religious practices of “emerging adults:”

This group of emergent adults says they feel close to God. They adapt religious traditions according to their own individual needs and desires. But religion has high salience for them. They really care
about the meaning of life and other deep questions. Religious attendance is medium, with some regular attending and others not. They engage in service to others. It’s a religiosity that would not exclude attendance or personal prayer.

And another cautionary note: Young philanthropists want to support causes not institutions:

They have judged previous generations to be largely motivated by recognition for their giving and want little part of it. They want to see societal change through the causes they support; they could care less about the named scholarship fund or the plaque on the wall. Christian institutions making appeals to younger donors need to show how their work is part of the unfolding shalom of God for all of creation.


young donors want to be engaged in the work of a cause or institution itself. As the study notes, this is a generation that grew up volunteering and believes that investing time as much as money is essential. But note — this on-the-ground service is also another way that they will assess impact over rhetoric.

The “Nones” in 2013: A collection of links

Elizabeth Drescher has a thoughtful piece on resisting the impulse to pigeonhole the “nones.” Some may be spiritual but not religious, some may be unbelievers, but it’s important to keep in mind the results of the Pew survey:

  • 68% of the Unaffiliated in general believe in God or a Universal Spirit
  • Among those who self-identify as Atheist/Agnostic, 38% say they believe in God or a Universal Spirit
  • Among those who self-identified as “Nothing in Particular”—the majority of Nones (71%) in general—some 81% say they believe in God or a Universal Spirit

Survey says: Nones are by and large not unbelievers. Not atheists. Not secular humanists. Not anti-religious.

Apparently the growth in the religiously-unaffiliated slowed in 2012, increasing by only .3 percentage points.

Faith beyond Belief: Stories of good people who have left their church behind by Margaret Placentra Johnson shares the stories of people of faith who have abandoned institutional religion. Her book puts faces on some of those included among the “nones.” Some may be “spiritual but not religious” but there are also atheists, mystics, and people who continue religious practice (prayer, for example) outside the confines of institutional religion.

But the SBNR’s may have more mental problems than the religiously affiliated, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Mark Vernon has a thoughtful take on the study’s significance:

In Britain, though, it appears that many individuals view religion as an impingement upon their spiritual searching. Christianity, say, is felt to constrain life – perhaps because of the negative attitudes it projects about gay people and women; or because it presents belief as more important than growth; or because it looks more interested in sin than enlightenment. If that is so, the new research is a striking indictment of the failure of British churches to meet spiritual needs

And this:

Finally, the research challenges the stance of those who are spiritual but not religious. It might be called the individualism delusion, the conviction that I can “do God” on my own. And yet, as the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott argued, human beings need to work through traditions to resource their personal creativity. Only in the lives of others can we make something rich of our own life

Tripp Hudgins says he’s a Christian because he is “spiritual-but-not-religious:”

Religions are simply scaffolding for revelation…which is the principal goal of any spiritual practice. Religions are collections of spiritual practices. That’s all they are. Mine is Christianity. I’m Christian because I am spiritual-but-not-religious. I am Christian because Jesus said, “The sabbath is for humanity and not humanity for the sabbath.”

Jesus honored the so-called spiritual-but-not-religious. He lauded the seeker.

The others had him killed.

Then he came back and said, “Come. Follow me.”

How could I not?

More about the “Nones.” Who are they, anyway?

You remember, last week’s Pew survey stirred up a frenzy of speculation (and angst) about what it might mean that the number of religiously unaffiliated in the US has grown by 5% (and yes, I contributed in my own small way, to that frenzy).

There’s been a lot of commentary about the “nones”–who they are, why they have rejected institutional religion. Much of it is like a recent piece by Brian McLaren which focuses on college students who have been turned off by conservative Christianity.

Elizabeth Drescher offers a more nuanced approach, pointing out that the Pew Survey focuses on belief, rather than on practice:

My hunch is that questions about “belonging to a community of people who share your beliefs and values” confuses the idea of community as a gathered social-spiritual network (a tribe) with the fraught subject of doctrinal religious belief and, further, the problematic language of religious values. We know, of course, that attendance at religious services of all sorts is down (except, perhaps, among religious groups in which doctrinal pluralism is something of a core value), but that does not allow us to conclude that religious or spiritual community is not important in the United States among those who identify or formally affiliate with institutional religions as well as those who do not.

Still, it’s clear that McLaren, Drescher, and most Episcopalian commentators on the survey imagine the “nones” to be well-educated, middle-class or upper-middle class, and probably white.

The reality, revealed by the Pew survey itself, is rather different. Jeff Sharlet points out the connection between disaffiliation and economics:

so the Pew study of the Nones has distracted many from what I think are the most interesting numbers: the largest percentage, 38%, is in the under $30,000 income bracket. Another 34% are below $74,999. Which means 72% are poor, working class, or, for a family of four, lower middle class. Those identifying as “atheist/agnostic,” a much smaller group than the “Nothing in particulars,” skew 62% under $75,000. Look at the education demographics and you’ll find more evidence for the hypothesis that what these numbers show is economic absence as much as religious absence. 45% of those identifying as Nothing in Particulars (NiPs) have no college, roughly the same as many religious affiliations.

He also points out the historical connection between disconnectedness from religion and economic downturns. The Great Depression was the last historical period that saw such numbers of the “unchurched.”

If he’s right, that might require rethinking how one does outreach to the religiously unaffiliated (the “unchurched”).

Perfect love casts out fear: Christianity and the American culture of violence–updated

Another act of mass violence today. The media went wacko. Meanwhile, yesterday in Chicago, nineteen people were shot, including eight in a drive-by shooting. Roger Ebert pointed out the parallel.

A story on inner-city Philadelphia examines the effects of gun violence on the community and on individuals, focusing on the trauma caused by the level of violence:

Between January 1, 2001, and May 29th of this year, 18,043 people were shot in Philadelphia. That equates to about one shooting every six hours. In that same time period, there were 3,852 murders—a new body yielded up for disposal nearly every day. The entire length of the conflict in Afghanistan hasn’t produced as many dead Americans as we’ve picked up off our city’s streets.

As others have pointed out, media coverage of mass shootings conforms to our own fears. Random shootings seem to receive more attention than targeted ones (does this explain the relative lack of attention to the Oak Creek shootings?) We’ve become inured to certain kinds of violence–the shootings in Chicago being an excellent example, and our own ongoing participation in wars abroad. It’s only when that violence affects us, or people like us, that we seem to take notice.

There have been many attempts to make sense of the recent epidemic of shootings. Of course each shooter had his own set of fears and disappointments, his own set of demons, to make generalization dangerous.

What strikes me about our national mood is our level of fear. We are afraid of the future and afraid of the future direction of our country and world. We worry about the economy, about our jobs and families. We worry whether we will be able to make ends meet, or whether we will have adequate resources or medical care in our retirement. That fear percolates under the surface all of the time and is given voice in our degraded political culture.

One thing that unites these recent shootings is that the perpetrators are all white men. Elizabeth Drescher has pointed to the significance of this:

Whatever the unique complex of psychosocial, religious, financial, moral, political, or other issues that tormented the mass killers recently populating Twitter feeds and news headlines, they all sought to solve their problems with a particular expression of gun violence that maps easily to particular configurations of masculinity—apparently across classes and political ideologies. Those of us concerned with how religious ideologies participate in narratives of domination and violence, then, would do well to explore the masculinist roots of Christianity or other religious traditions, particularly as male authority and normativity are emphasized in more conservative expressions.

How do we as communities of faith respond the shootings as well as the underlying fears, the very notion of “redemptive violence” that permeate our culture? How can we offer hope and life in this culture of fear and death?  How can we proclaim a gospel that might work toward the transformation of our society? How can we name and combat the evil in our midst and offer life-giving alternatives?

That phrase from I John 4, “but perfect love casts out fear,” has been running through my head the past several weeks. If we can experience that sort of love in our hearts. If we can experience that sort of love in our congregations, if we can invite and express that sort of love with those we encounter in our neighborhoods and communities, we will go a long way toward overcoming our national culture of fear and violence.

Quitting Church

This week there’s been a good bit of discussion around the web about quitting or leaving church.

I’ve been thinking about this theme myself, in part because of recent encounters with a number of Roman Catholics who are struggling with their faith and their membership in that Church. Some can no longer find a spiritual home there and have embarked on a journey that leads them away. Others are struggling to find some way of finding peace with a hierarchy from which they are alienated and finding peace as well with a personal history and family tradition that still binds them.

Over the weekend, our neighbors down the street at the Freedom from Religion Foundation had an ad in the NYTimes urging Catholics to quit the church. Here it is:

The ad has produced its desired result: considerable response from various quarters. Sidney Callahan wrote about it for America magazine’s “In All Things,” observing that:

Helpfully, the free from religion folks provide a long list of oppressive “dark age” errors that “must be stopped.” One can become a member of their cruade by sending checks ranging from $40 (Individual) to $100 (Sustaining) to $500 (Life) to a puzzling category of (After Life) for $5000. This pitch for money prompted one wag to reply, “Hey people, you can quit for free you know.”

I’ve long joked that I would love to run an ad campaign directed at Roman Catholics with tag-lines like “The Episcopal Church: All of the Liturgy, none of the Guilt.” I do believe that the Episcopal Church can offer a home to at least some Roman Catholics who can no longer be at home in their church. But at the same time, to make such a direct appeal seems problematic. Here’s another version, from Rev. Matthew Lawrence.

A generous, pastoral response is necessary; and above all, humility that the Episcopal Church might not be the appropriate place for everyone who is estranged from the Roman Catholic Church.

One Catholic who left the Church and an order, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, is Mary Johnson. An interview with her  is here.  Her story of leaving is An Unquenchable Thirst.

My doubts in the convent were more questions about my call than doubting God or my Catholic faith — that came later. Though I’d felt called to serve the poor, I was assigned years of administrative work. Eventually when I was superior of a house that cared for refugee women and their children, I was forbidden to start programs that would have helped the women toward self-sufficiency; my superiors insisted that I limit myself to providing food and shelter. As Mother Teresa aged and her health failed, I clashed with two powerful sisters who had pulled the community very far to the right. I also realized that I needed deeper human connections than the rules allowed. I kept hearing within me the words of Jesus in the gospel: “I came that you may have life, and have it to the full” — and life in the MCs didn’t look very full. I felt as though I was suffocating.

Lisa Miller points out that women are giving up church in growing numbers. According to the Barna Group, regular attendance by women has dropped by 20% between 1991 and 2011. Her focus is on conservative Christianity.

One woman who struggles with church-going is Elizabeth Drescher, who writes about  “Giving up Church for Lent.”

Dave Kinnaman (The Barna Group) on their current research findings, postulating “two worlds” one of active, engaged Christians; the other consisting of secular people completely alienated from religion and Christianity. He suggests that perhaps whole segments of our population and culture have given up church. That is to say, religion is no longer of any significance or interest to them.

The future of church…

A couple of disparate pieces have got me thinking, especially in light of the role Grace has played on Capitol Square in the last month.

The first is a review by Bob Duggan of Denis McNamara’s How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Ecclesiastical Architecture. He concludes:

Even if you are not a believer, McNamara’s How to Read Churches will make you wonder what we shall turn these monuments of the past into for us today—meaningless ruins or emblems of a passion and hope that we can, and should, recognize and incorporate into our lives.

The second is the ongoing debate on the effects of facebook on churches. Elizabeth Drescher asks the question on Religion Dispatches.

I think her conclusion is both valid and quite challenging:

It’s a start. But until churches and other religious groups, their leaders, and members feel comfortable interacting with one another around real questions of meaning and value—questions having little to do with doctrine and much to do with practices of compassion and justice—their social media participation will do no more to revitalize declining religious institutions than holding weekly Jazzercise classes in the parish hall.

Mobile computing and associated social media have not replaced the main draw of the traditional church: spiritual connection in social context. But they have made it more difficult to mask the modern, broadcast-era practice of social and spiritual disconnectedness that plays out as much in generic coffee hour chitchat about football scores and the latest lame Seth Rogan chucklefest as it does in Facebook pages that enable participants (really, the old Facebook “fan” terminology is more accurate) to see a church’s message and comment on it, but which don’t invite genuine, person-to-person or people-to-world interactivity.

I was struck, in the midst of that surreal Ash Wednesday service last week, that our congregation consisted overwhelmingly of young people, many of whom I had never seen before. They came for something; ashes, certainly, but also to be reminded of who they are and who God is, and they chose to come to a specific place, that was designed to connect with the sacred. We address profound questions in a liturgy like Ash Wednesday, that need not have any social dimension on the surface, but the very performance of them had enormous meaning, both within and outside our walls that night