Kyle has a permanent tattoo on the inside of his wrist that says “Salvation from the cross,” but he no longer believes in God. He wants to believe, but sees evolution and science as telling him there is no God. Miriam was raised as a Jew, but is not sure she believes in God anymore. Now she describes herself as agnostic. Yusuf was raised as a Muslim, but calls himself atheist. These are some of the voices heard on the series Losing Our Religion that aired on NPR last week. 

According to Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, one in five Americans is no longer affiliated with any religion. That doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in God; many see themselves as spiritual. It means they don’t identify with any particular organized religion. They are called “nones,” referring to the checkbox “none” on an itemized list of possible religions. Younger Americans are even less likely to choose a religion. In fact, one in three Americans under 30 years old is a none. 

Robert Putnam is a professor at Harvard who writes about religion and public life. He described a common misunderstanding that exists concerning young people. Many think the youth start out religiously unaffiliated but then grow more religious as they get older. That’s not the case, according to Putnam. Young people are not only more religiously unaffiliated then their older peers, but they are also more religiously unaffiliated than young people have ever have been in previous generations. The biggest declines are in the Protestant Christian denominations. The United States was historically a Protestant country, but for the first time ever in Pew research polling the Protestant share has dipped below 50 percent.

Putman offered a few explanations for the rise of the nones. First is the distancing of the younger cultures from community institutions. For example, the next generation increasingly describe themselves as independents instead of democrats or republicans. Second, the most visible religions in the public sphere have become identified with socially conservative values, while the nones have become socially liberal. And third, most other affluent cultures have lost their religion a long time ago, and perhaps the United States is just catching up. 

As a member of the nones, I found these explanations lacking. When I listened to “Losing Our Religion,” I heard people struggling to reconcile ancient holy texts and ancient traditions with contemporary modes of thinking. Since I grew up Christian, I’ll use the Bible as an example. The modern English translations only fool us into thinking we understand a collection of writings far removed in both place and time. You might say that God and humanity hasn’t changed, but I say that we have. And it’s not just the roles of sexuality and family that have changed. Scientific thinking has rebooted a great deal of our identity. We live in a world of iPhone 5’s and 787 Dreamliners. The rising generations subsist on energy drinks and electricity. How does that compare with firmaments, demons, talking donkeys, great fish that swallow people, and stars that stop over houses? 

We have two basic ways of reading the Bible today: conservative theology and liberal theology. Fundamentalists and Evangelicals claim that the Bible is inerrant and infallible or at least try to understand it more literally, while the liberals read current ideas into the Bible. To me, conservatism and liberalism are symptoms of this same issue. I see both demonstrating the difficulty of people to understand writings from over 2,000 years ago. Perhaps the words on the page can be translated, but it’s impossible to translate an entirely different way of thinking.  We’re not there anymore and we can’t get there from here.  I’m not saying that we should modernize our traditional values; I’m saying we don’t understand biblical values at all. I’m saying there’s no going back. I’m saying it’s impossible to put that genie back in that bottle again.  Ancient holy books do not speak to newer generations anymore. And when they do or we think they do, it’s ourselves and our own thoughts that we hear.  We aren’t able to hear the real voices that spoke from so long ago. 

As the Bible says, “Wisdom is proved right by her children,” (Luke 7:35).  The children featured in “Losing Our Religion” are saying that traditional ways of knowing God don’t work for them.  There is fundamental change at work.  We should seek God, not a book.  We need to understand God’s way for us today, together, so help us God.

14 Comments

  1. Tracy Simmons

    Thanks for the link Bruce. I had hoped to listen to the series, but missed it. You offer an interesting perspective. I, for one, am not surprised by this new trend. Is anyone else?

  2. Bruce,
    Towards the end of your post you move to using the language of “we”, which reads in a universalizing tone. Not sure if you intended it. While you may only be able to think of two ways to read the Bible, “conservative theology” and “liberal theology”, there are many communities of faith who do not suffer from that problem. I agree that it has been widespread in the last 100 years to succumb to those modernist tendencies, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, but the failure of Christian faith communities in this regard has not be total.

    For me, it is reading the Bible from within a practicing faith community that serves most palpably to help make those ancient texts come to life and feel near to my experience. I will never ride a donkey, but I do live among those who suffer from sickness, poverty, and violence, all of which are addressed eloquently by the Biblical texts (among many others).

    I’m interested in the feeling you describe of the English translations “fooling” us into thinking we understand more than we do. It seems as churches we do not do a very good job of articulating how a person can be sceptical in the best ways modernity has taught us and still voluntarily belong to a community with particular practices, speech, and habits. I hope that “we” can do better.

  3. Tracy Simmons

    Heather, on Facebook, said: I am sort of an ALL..in that I have explored many paths to God and find that many core beliefs are similar. I am comfortable looking to a variety of sources for wisdom and inspiration. I am involved in two spiritual communities that support one another and I find that being part of a supportive group and having a sense of belonging is one of my needs. The only requirement is that I must accept that I am not God

  4. Jake,

    Thanks for your insightful comments. I agree that there are other much healthier ways of reading the Bible as you described, and my experience as a Christian is very limited. In the North Idaho region most of what I see is the more fundamentalist conservative theologies. The Bible is certainly the greatest book I’ve ever read, and describes in a nonparallel manner the humanity and sanctity of sickness, poverty, violence, suffering, and death. For that I will be forever grateful.

    Yet I fear today’s society is moving towards binary responses to the Bible: Either we regard it in a superstitious manner, reading it in such a myopic literal manner to the point of worship, or we disregard it as something from the past that has little importance to our rationalistic/scientific culture. I see both of these as wrong and even dangerous. Yet they both exist because we are so far removed from that first century. We have been enlightened, so to speak, by the enlightenment. As scientific thinking continues to pervade our culture down to the lowest levels, it becomes more and more difficult for the common person like me (meaning not educated in religion) to read the Bible in the healthy and proper manner that you described.

    The disagreement over evolution is an important point in this manner. I originally sought to try to help people understand that Genesis doesn’t need to be read in such a literal manner, and that there was no disagreement between the Bible and evolutionary science. More recently, however, I’ve realized that the problem is much deeper. It’s too difficult for someone without a degree in religion and science to make that distinction. It’s just natural to read the Bible like we read the internet. To do otherwise is too much to expect from people who really don’t have the time in their busy lives to put themselves in the shoes of someone from two thousand years ago.

    But more than that, I’m beginning to see religion not as a universal dogmatic truth, but as a way to know God and a way to God. It is God who is the focus, not the way to God. If we change as a people (ie a more scientific culture), then is it wrong for us to have a different way to God? Christianity is different from Judaism because people changed and grew. The Protestant reformation happened because people changed and grew. Now we have changed again, and I expect for God to work different today than he did two thousand years ago. Not because God has changed, but because we live in a culture that expresses ourselves differently.

  5. Although I have not explored other religions, I agree with Heather that many religions have core elements that are similar. For example, I’ve read that “love your neighbor as yourself” is found in some manner in nearly all religions. I think it’s healthy to find wisdom and truth in a variety of sources.

  6. I, for one, believe that losing religion is one of the best things that can happen. The pharisees were religious and Jesus called them hypocrites, snakes and whitewashed tombs. They weren’t too happy about it and eventually (by God’s own power and predestination) hung him on a cross for it. I’ve discussed this before, but religion is man’s feeble attempt to somehow make his way pleasing to God, when God Himself says that even our righteousness to Him is like filthy rags. That was Cain’s sin and it’s been repeated ad infinitum down through the ages. Maybe the reason modern man doesn’t relate to the Bible is because it lays out admitting one’s sinfulness and helplessness to ever please God as the first step in knowing Him. The Bible nails every human subtlety to sin and cover it up that there is. No amount of so-called scientific knowledge, or advanced psychological insight even holds a candle to the ability of the Bible to cut to the heart of every matter. Either the Bible is the very Word of God or a pile of deceptive lies that will destroy any man who reads it. I believe that God will be holding every man, women and child to the words given in that book. Not me, Him.

  7. One more comment on the idea that religion is the way to God and the way to know Him, and that the focus should be God and not the way to Him. I’ve learned that knowing the scriptures is the best way to combat wrong thinking and that the Holy Spirit is always faithful to bring to mind thoughts in response to that kind of thinking. Jesus Christ said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by Me.” Most of the religious liberals prefer to demote Jesus to “good teacher” status. Conversely, He claimed to be the one and only way to know the true and living God. I’m sure that’s also why Jesus said that He didn’t come to bring peace to the world, but a sword. (see Matt.10:34-38). He sets Himself up as the line of demarcation. In His true role, He is not easy for everyone to love, only those who are ready to be done with themselves.

  8. The Bible is a faith story, assembled by the church when it chose which books were in (true) and which books were not in (not true enough). The journey of faith can be found in the Bible, and if I am attentive, I can find my journey in it. Sharing with my brother or sister also can help my journey as the wisdom in the Biblical texts. Jesus was a great teacher, and remains so, even when I decide and accept his as more. The loss of a religion, a denomination or set of beliefs might even free me to see, understand and become a more authentic follower, and yet some rituals within a denomination may still hold great moments and reminders of truths we learned and experienced.

    Taking a personal journey brings a responsibility which cannot be unloaded or blamed on a church who taught me to think in certain ways. The more attentive I am to the relationship with God and Jesus, as with a marriage, the better I know them.

  9. Dennis-

    Thank you for your comments. Your input is always appreciated. I would point out, however, that your treatment of the Pharisees only proves my thesis. You have a portrayal of the Pharisees that has been colored by modern fundamentalism, not an accurate historical view. That is part of the problem with reading a book from two thousand years ago for spiritual guidance. I commend you on your commitment to Christianity, but I fear you have become too much like your modern image of those Pharisees, whereas the actual historical people were really not like that at all.

  10. Gary-

    Thank you for your input. I can certainly appreciate that the loss of religion might bring someone closer to God. I commend you on being a follower of Jesus, but I would challenge you, can you really know somebody by reading a book from two thousands years distance? For example, in the Gospels Jesus says: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Yet these words were actually taught by Hillel, not Jesus, or at least Hillel said them first. So are you following Jesus or Hillel?

  11. Hey Bruce, I always enjoy the conversation. I wouldn’t say I gave the pharisees a treatement, I think I just re-stated what was written in the Word. It was Jesus who gave them a treatment. I’m not like the Pharisees at all. My faith is not in a book or writings but in Jesus Christ Himself. He is the one who inspired the writing of the Scriptures in order that we might be able to come to know Him. My relationship to Him is personal, He has performed the miracle of the new birth in me, it is so much more than a change of mind. The Pharisees thought that their good works were earning them a place in God’s eternal kingdom, but Jesus called them children of their father, the devil. Most people these days have been deceived and unfortunately many by organized religion of all kinds. We have the ability these days to more accurately know what was meant by what was said in scripture than at any other time. The free eSword program that’s available to anyone, has the power to compare, research root words, read commentaries by those who have spent their lives studying the scriptures and compare almost every good translation that is out there. I’m sorry but I’m just not buying the “we can’t understand such an old book” argument.

  12. HI Bruce- The loss of religion might be the finding of God. The loss of an idol–whether religion or a book–may be a good thing. The knowing of someone comes from the relationship, and whether the book or quote is 1500 years old or 2 years old, the relationship is both my personal one and the one with a community of believers (this keeps me from becoming my own nut case and denomination or cult). The encounter with God (and other names are used by others for the encounter) is the event and the framework of how we put it into a meaning or explanation often get in the way. Describing the encounter outside of my religious language with people of other faiths, or of no expressed faith, often finds common ground. And for my experience, is expressed in the Bible.

    Quotes and parables and stories can point us to these deep experiences. A good teacher or pastor will help provide meaning and understanding. The particular quote or source is not the focus. The Bible is not an to made into an idol and supplant the relationship. It is a guide, accepted by the catholic and protestant community but for many believers is a historical expression of the journey of faith.

    Again, I only try to speak for my experience, though I have this long history of being taught within the church. Each one of us has their own journey to make, which is pretty interesting.

  13. Gary-

    You’ve expressed great insights and wisdom in your comments. Thank you for taking the time to respond. I’m glad to hear you have a well balanced approach to faith which sounds almost mystical to me (which is my own leaning also). I agree that the Bible can be an excellent source of inspiration, as well as a community of believers. I wish you well on your journey.

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