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.