Is religion dying in America?

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-24 RSV) | Paul in Athens. By Anonymous (Düsseldorfer Auktionshaus) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Meet the spiritual but not religious

The Pew Research Center recently released a study that found 27 percent of Americans think of themselves as spiritual but not religious. That’s up eight percent in the last five years, the study says.

The New York Times calls them “Americans who seem to want some connection to the divine, but who don’t feel affiliated with traditional religion.”

I’ve always assumed those who label themselves spiritual but not religious (SBNR) are agnostic without embracing the term. But my conversation with dear friends and family who are in the SBNR camp makes me conclude I’m wrong.

Merriam-Webster defines an agnostic as “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (such as God) is unknown and probably unknowable.” Years ago, we young philosophy students at Butler University argued agnosticism was an untenable position in the long run. One ultimately must decide to believe there is a higher power or that there is none.

It has been a little hard for me to be certain, but my conversations with those in the SBNR camp lead me to believe that many believe there is a higher power but are not willing to associate that being with any particular organized religion.

Is this a different form of agnosticism? One in which an ultimate reality is knowable, but its association with any formal religious movement is unknowable?

My Evangelical friends often tell me my Catholic Church’s foundation is based mostly on the traditions of men, not God. They argue that the Bible alone – as they interpret it – is the source of all Christian truth. For instance, as the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds are not explicitly found in the Bible, some Evangelical churches I attended rejected creeds.

Some of my SBNR friends seem to take this a step further. They would lump Catholics and Evangelicals together with all other organized religions as failed attempts by humans to describe the divine. Some see organized religion as attempts by the greedy to exert power over the weak and frightened masses. Karl Marx believed “Man makes religion, religion does not make man.”

Not surprisingly, I disagree with Marx’s statement. I am a Christian because I believe there is such as thing as sin. I believe my problem with sin involves placing my desires ahead of God’s.  I believe His will can be known, at least in part, through revelations to man such as scriptures. I believe my refusal to bend to His will has consequences. I believe this is part of a cosmic, timeless struggle in which the Judeo-Christian God provided a solution to my problem. (How I came to the beliefs described with these few words is a book unto itself.)

It would be inaccurate to state all SBNRs reject religion. It appears many, if not most, have rejected atheism. This leads me to wonder if the growth of the SBNR group reflects a proliferation in spiritual seeking and an increase in honesty about that quest for truth. Perhaps America’s SBNRs are closer to the Athenians Saint Paul addressed in Acts 17:22-34.

In previous generations it was easy to claim Christianity in the same way one claims nationality, you were often born to it. I’ve met many who describe themselves as Christian based on birth into a Christian family. If asked their religion on a hospital admissions form, they would label themselves Christian. But would do so without much evidence, having never explored scriptures or attended a church service. If Christianity is a belief system, is it honest to claim a label for ideas you reject, don’t know, or have never actually explored?

Perhaps the growth in the number of those professing to be spiritual but not religious is a refreshing blooming of personal honesty. Maybe it marks a break from the last generation’s social pressure to wear the Christian label, regardless of secretly-held beliefs.

While I would not I would find it encouraging if there were fewer Christians in the world, I do believe non-believers should never feel social pressure to fake it.

To be clear, the Pew study does not find that SBNRs have wholly rejected organized religion.

“Most actually do identify with a religious group, including 35% who say they are Protestant, 14% who are Catholic and 11% who are members of others faiths, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism.

“Many in the “spiritual but not religious” category have low levels of religious observance, saying they seldom or never attend religious services (49%, compared with 33% of the general public) and that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important in their lives (44% vs. 25% of all U.S. adults).”

What does this migration of spiritual thought mean for those of us who believe evangelism is an important part of our Christian faith?

For my SBNR friends, do you find Christian evangelism an opportunity for a meaningful dialog or an unwelcome assault on your personal beliefs? Are your spiritual beliefs something you even care to discuss?


Scripture quotations are from The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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