Faith

The Nones: Skeptics Are the New Religious

Questioning Christianity illustration, Alberto Masnovo / Shutterstock.com
Questioning Christianity illustration, Alberto Masnovo / Shutterstock.com

Except for presidential candidates and some parts of the Bible Belt, the days when church membership was necessary for social acceptance are long gone. Many Americans view religion as suspect or superfluous or both.

In fact, the latest data from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life say that a record-high one in five Americans -- and one in three adults under age 30 -- are religiously unaffiliated.

So why did all 1,500 seats sell out for a debate I moderated a few months ago entitled “Has Science Refuted Religion?” at the California Institute of Technology? Why should the brilliant minds of the Caltech community even care, especially since skeptics, rather than true believers, made up the majority of the audience?

As the dean of a theology school, the question is of high interest to me, and I think I know the answer.

Just the Facts Ma’am: Economic Analysis from the Congressional Research Service

Just the Facts signage, Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com
Just the Facts signage, Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com

When we listen to political debates about which public policies will strengthen the economy, it is easy to get lost in a statistical maze. Each side presents economic data in a way that supports their own theory of the case.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a branch of the Library of Congress that can help us make our own assessments regarding public policy. According to the CRS website, its purpose is to provide “authoritative, confidential, objective and nonpartisan” analyses to members of Congress. 

The relationship between tax rates and the economy is an issue in the current campaign. Thinking about this issue, the CRS looks at empirical data that may or may not confirm theoretical models or ideological assumptions. Thus, like the early TV detective Joe Friday, they want “just the facts ma’am,” and then they try to reach conclusion from these facts.

On Religious Deserts and the Canaanite Woman

Portland skyline, JPL Designs / Shutterstock.com
Portland skyline, JPL Designs / Shutterstock.com

A friend of mine forwarded a link to a recent Huffington Post article about the most and least religious cities in the United States. Interestingly – but hardly surprising – you have to scroll waaaay down the list to find my current city of Portland, Ore.

“Looks like you have your work cut out for you,” he said. He’s right; I’ve met folks here who work in churches that tell people they work at a nonprofit when asked what they do, leaving the bit about the nonprofit being a church until they get to know each other better. And of course, we knew this when we came to the Pacific Northwest.

In fact, that’s part of what made me want to be here.

For some, there is great appeal in coming to an “unchurched” community, mainly because of the notion that this means there are that many more people in need of saving. And while this may or may not be true, there’s a lot of presumption that goes into saving those without religion, while assuming those who claim a faith are the ones to do the “saving.”

How Should Churches Address the 'Nones?'

Photo: Young woman near church doors, Lisa A / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Young woman near church doors, Lisa A / Shutterstock.com

OK, church folks. Fasten your seat belts. But don’t hunker down.

There’s a new study out this week that shows that one-in-five Americans has no religious affiliation. Not Baptist, not Catholic, not Lutheran, not Jewish, not Muslim. 

For those of us in the world of organized religion, this just adds more data to a trend we have seen accelerating over the last decade.

In 2007, about 15 percent of the adult population in the U.S. described itself as unaffiliated with any religion. In a comparable survey done this summer and released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number hit 20 percent.  And if you just focus on those under 30, the religiously unaffiliated constitute one third of that group.

Among those of us who are professional religious types, this is the kind of data that can prompt a lot of gloomy introspection about relevance and a lot of finger pointing at those who are not interested in the same kinds of religious expression that we are. 

Let me suggest there’s a less gloomy and less judgmental way to think about this data.

Meet the Nones: Words Are Unnecessary

Loch Raven Reservoir, Timonium. Photo by Melissa Otterbein
Loch Raven Reservoir, Timonium. Photo by Melissa Otterbein

Editor's Note:  Melissa Otterbein tells her story of why she's part of the 20 percent of Americans who identify with "no religion in particular."Find more stories (or share your own) HERE. Read about the study HERE.

A "recovering Evangelical," author Melissa identifies with the "nones" after church experiences in the non-denominational Church, Lutheran Church, Church of God, United Church of Christ, and the kind of Church that happens when you have hour-long conversations with people who are materially poor yet rich in spirit. Each of these "Churches" (and those not mentioned) depict Christ in beautiful ways, she believes, but feels that solely identifying with a denominational designation hasn't seemed to fully capture her faith experience. Though "none" might seem like a shocking response to "which religious tradition do you closely identify with?" it's one that, "offers freedom in Christ that brings me to closer to the Kingdom of God in the here and now."

I am tired of explaining away my faith.

I am tired of defending, “proving,” withholding my true feelings for fear of religious retaliation.
I’m tired of watching some people argue their faith, trying to “win people to Christ” with their cogent, convincing “answers.”
I’m tired of watching Jesus be sold, marketed, put on display.

I’m tired of watching certain people try to convince the world why their God is the right God.
I’m tired of listening to people deify their Bible by retorting this verse and that verse when our God is so much bigger than the sole medium of Genesis-Revelation.
I’m tired of platitudes about the Word and faith and sin and grace that I’ve heard over and over again; for every time I hear these trite remarks, I question if we’ve lost the unadulterated beauty behind such venerable passages.

Oregon Dentist Fined for Pressuring Employee to Attend Scientology Seminar

REDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GettyImages
Pedestrians walk past the Church of Scientology along Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. REDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GettyImages

BEND, Ore. — State labor officials have ordered a dentist to pay nearly $348,000 to settle allegations that he threatened to fire a dental assistant unless she attended a Scientology-related training session.

The Bureau of Labor and Industries contends Dr. Andrew W. Engel repeatedly "badgered" Susan Muhleman about the three-day conference despite her concerns that it would conflict with her Christian beliefs. He also turned down her request to attend secular training instead, investigators said.

As a result, Muhleman quit AWE Dental Spa in August 2009 — weeks before the conference  and moved out of state to find a job, the state agency said.

Muhleman said she was opposed to going to the Scientology conference but worried about losing her job at the height of the recession, when the local jobless rate was about 15 percent.

Unitarian Universalists See Chance for Growth in Growth of Secularism

 RNS photo by Steven S. Harman/The Tennessean
Members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church. RNS photo by Steven S. Harman/The Tennessean

 

For Nathan De Lee, going to church as a kid was an ordeal.

De Lee, a Unitarian Universalist, grew up in rural Kansas, where members of his faith were few and far between. Attending services meant an overnight trip to Kansas City, Mo., where the nearest Unitarian Universalist congregation was.

Today, getting to church is easy for De Lee, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University. He's a regular in the choir on Sundays at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, which has a congregation of about 500.

De Lee is one of a growing number of Unitarian Universalists, a group of people who believe in organized religion but are skeptical about doctrine. The denomination grew nationally by 15.8 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

Keeping it Real

EVEN IN AN age of ever-faster news cycles and shorter word counts, some journalists still find ways to dig deep into research and reporting to bring history to life and lift up voices that might otherwise be unheard. Here is an eclectic mix of nonfiction works on issues and people that matter.

Can those who commit violent crimes ever truly be rehabilitated? What happens to them once they’re out of prison? In Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption (PublicAffairs, 2012), Nancy Mullane follows her subjects from prison to welcome-home parties and beyond. While never minimizing the crimes her subjects have committed, she portrays their full, complicated humanity. Moving insights about the ongoing spiritual, emotional, and practical work of accepting responsibility for great wrongs and rebuilding a life after prison are framed by reporting on the convoluted, expensive prison and parole policies of California.

You might not expect gripping drama from a writer specializing in U.S. Supreme Court history, but that’s what Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (Harper, 2012) delivers. Long before he became a Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall was an NAACP lawyer who risked his life travelling to the Jim Crow South to defend African Americans accused of capital crimes. Devil in the Grove describes his efforts to save a black citrus picker from the electric chair in a Florida county where the Klan and law enforcement were brutally intertwined—and brings alive an era of domestic terrorism against people of color in the not-distant-enough past.

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How to Choose a President

Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

[editor's note: This article was originally published in 2012. References to elections or politicians without specific dates attached are in the context of the 2012 election cycle.]

AS I CAREFULLY watched both the Democratic and the Republican conventions this summer, I realized, once again, how challenging and complicated it is to bring faith to politics.

For example, the phrase “middle class” was likely the most repeated phrase at the conventions. And even though both parties are utterly dependent on their wealthy donors (a fact they don’t like to talk about), they know that middle-class voters will determine the outcome of the election. Now, I believe a strong middle class is good for the country, but Jesus didn’t say, “What you have done for the middle class, you have done for me.” Rather, Matthew 25 says, “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”

When your first principle for politics is what happens to the poor and vulnerable—and I believe that is the first principle for Christians—you keep waiting at conventions for those words and commitments. There were a few moments when the poor were briefly mentioned, but it certainly wasn’t a strong theme in Tampa or Charlotte. “Opportunity” for the middle class was an important word in both conventions this year, but Christians must be clear that creating new opportunities for poor children and low-income families is critical to us.

The conventions also talked a great deal about “success,” but how we define that is very important. Is success mostly about how much money we make, defining the “American Dream” as being able to pass on more riches to our children than what our parents passed on to us? Or is success measured by how we as a nation prioritize, in our spending and political choices, the sick, the vulnerable, the weak, and the elderly? Is it determined more by the values we pass on to our children—evaluating our lives, and theirs, by how much we are able to help others?

America is a nation of immigrants, and how we welcome “the stranger” in our midst is another Christian principle for politics. So is our racial diversity as a nation, where all our citizens must be treated as having equal value. The most inspiring stories at the conventions for me came when that diversity was evidenced on the stage—from a young undocumented “dreamer” and a black first lady on the platform at the Democratic convention to Condoleezza Rice telling her fellow Republicans how a little girl from a segregated Southern city became secretary of state. But little mention was made at either convention of the racial disparities in America’s burgeoning prison industry or voting suppression efforts that most affect minorities and people who are poor.

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