Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sermon: "The Somes and the Nones" (Delivered 10-21-12)

This morning’s reading comes from the new book by Diana Butler Bass entitled, Christianity After Religion:  The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.
I go to Seattle for business quite a bit.  Once, I had dinner with a coffee executive and asked him how many choices were possible in one of his stores.  He said there were 82 thousand – give or take a few dozen – possibilities for a drink from the menu. 
Americans, even those of modest means, exercise more choices in a single day than some of our ancestors did in a month or perhaps even a year.  From the moment we awaken, we are bombarded with choices – from caffeinated to decaffeinated, to flipping to any one of a hundred television station as we ready the children for school, to getting our news in print, online, or via a mobile device, to what sort of spinach to buy to go with dinner (local, organic, fresh, frozen, chopped, whole leaf, bagged, or bunched.) 
We [have] developed a choice-based society, one driven by preference and desire instead of custom and obligation.  Adulthood means picking – education, career, partner, location, goods, political party, causes, beliefs, and faith.  In a world of choice, obligatory religions are not faring well.
Of course, some people do not like choices; it makes their head hurt. Coffee, black.  They always order the same thing.  But when presented with new or different choices, many people take the chance and pick – in amazingly creative and innovative ways, which usually threaten those still following the old paths.  In religious circles, choice is often viewed negatively as a violation of tradition, a break with custom, rebellion against God or the church, heresy.  Critics assail religious choice as selfish, individualistic, consumerist, narcissistic, navel-gazing, disloyal, thoughtless.  But, if for a moment, you strip away all the judgmental religious language, it is just choice. 
The economic, social, and political world in which we live has opened up the possibility for eighty-two thousand choices at the coffee shop and probably ten times as many when it comes to worshipping God and loving your neighbor.  Some will choose well, others badly.  Some will choose thoughtfully, others not so much.  Some choose something new, others choose what they have always known.  In the end, however, everybody chooses.  Contemporary spirituality is a little like that line at the coffee shop.

Back in 1966, the cover of the issue of Time Magazine that came out during the week before Easter asked the provocative question, “Is God Dead?”  Inside the magazine, social scientists contributed articles depicting the decline and eventual demise of religion.  Today, that cover is best remembered as a lesson in humility for would-be experts on human behavior.  It has been nearly half a century since that issue of Time hit the newsstands.  Those years have seen the rise of the religious right, the mega-church movement, televangelists, and culture wars that have attempted to replace democracy with theocracy.  Religious institutions did not disappear from the American landscape.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Reports of God’s death were greatly exaggerated.

My sermon this morning has to do with the changing face of the American religious landscape, particularly about the growing percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation.  This phenomena has been discussed at some length in a new book by Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion:  The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.  In the first half of the sermon I will share findings from a variety of studies of religion in America and in the second half of the sermon I will talk about what these shifts might mean for us as Unitarian Universalists.  As a person who studies religion, I’m interested in how people practice and experience their faith.  As your minister, I’m interested in how you and the people in your lives make meaning and find community.  So, as you listen, you might think about how what I say either reflects your own experiences or the experiences of those close to you.  And, a lot of what I am saying is mostly geared towards young people, people in their teens and twenties, and if you have any people that age in your life, you might think of how it might apply to them.

Last spring, a few weeks before Easter, Time Magazine released an issue with a cover story about ten ideas that are changing the way we live.  One of those ten ideas was called The Rise of the Nones.  From the Time Magazine article, “The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is the category of people who say they have no religious affiliation. Sometimes called ‘the nones’ by social scientists, their numbers have more than doubled since 1990; major surveys put them at 16% of the population.”  According to studies, some thirty percent of Americans under the age of thirty identify as “nones.”

But, there was a part of the article that I found much more interesting than the statistics.  The article introduced us to a group of “nones,” describing them this way,
In the tiny coastal town of La Misin on Mexico's Baja peninsula, dozens of American expats meet for a Sunday gathering they call Not Church.  Many of them long ago gave up on traditional religious institutions.  But they function as a congregation often does – engaging one another in spiritual conversation and prayer, delivering food when someone is sick and working together to serve the poor. 
On a recent Sunday the group, which began as a monthly discussion about a year ago, featured a sunny-haired ordained Presbyterian named Erin Dunigan delivering a sermon about tomatoes and God's call to Samuel.  (Organized religion, she told them, can be like supermarket tomatoes – flavorless and tough. That isn't a reason to give up on religion, or tomatoes, but instead to find a fresh, local version worth cultivating.)  “It was beautiful,” Dunigan says. “The people who don't want anything to do with the church or religion were the people who were leading everyone else in the service.”
So, maybe your reaction to this article is something like mine.  These people belong to a community that meets on Sunday where they come together to hold a service that is regularly led by an ordained Presbyterian.  They sure don’t sound like “nones.”  They sound like “somes.”  Or, even Presbyterians.

As paradoxical as it sounds, that is exactly the point of the Time article, and it is the point of a new book by Diana Butler Bass about the move away from religion but not necessarily away from spirituality or faith.  The Time article continues,
The hunger for spiritual connection and community hasn't gone away.  A 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asked respondents whether they believed in God, how often they prayed and whether they were affiliated with a particular religion; it found that “40% of the unaffiliated people were fairly religious… Many said they were still hoping to eventually find the right religious home.” 
That resonates with Erin Dunigan, who acts as a sort of unofficial chaplain for the Not Church members.  “My sense is that for most, they're not rejecting God,” she says. “They're rejecting organized religion as being rigid and dogmatic.”
These sources paint a portrait of a sizable and growing group of Americans who are interested in spirituality, but not in belonging to a religious organization.  Only four or five percent of Americans claim to self-identify as atheists.  Sixteen to twenty percent are “nones.”

There may be a problem with these statistics.  Americans tend to over-report and misreport their religious activity on surveys.  For example, a University of Michigan study of religious participation concluded that Americans over-report their attendance at religious services by anywhere from ten to eighteen points.  The Huffington Post ran an article last month about the gap between what religious people say they give to charity and what they actually do give.  “A quarter of respondents in a new national study said they tithed 10 percent of their income to charity.  But when their donations were checked against income figures, only 3 percent of the group gave more than 5 percent to charity.”

Anecdotally, I am reminded of an experience in my life in which religious self-reporting frequently did not measure up to reality.  My wife Anne and I met through the on-line dating site  Before we met, I had gone on a number of dates with women whose answer to the religious affiliation question didn’t match up to their actual religious affiliation.  One date claimed to be a non-denominational Christian despite holding membership at a church that was part of a normal, mainline denomination.  Others answered the religion question in a way was more reflective of their spiritual aspirations than of the reality of their religious practices.  This shouldn’t be surprising; I’m sure no other men or women would ever make any misleading statements in other parts of their dating profiles.

Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales recently wrote a blog post about the rise of the “nones.”  “The percentage of young people who claim no religious identity is skyrocketing…  This is a truly stunning rise in the number of young people who feel no connection to any religious tradition…  The great irony here is that these ‘nones’ are very much aligned with Unitarian Universalist values.  They are accepting of ethnic and sexual diversity.  They are open-minded.  They also seek spiritual community.  They present a huge challenge and a huge opportunity for us.”

To summarize these sources who write about the rise of “nones,” the phenomenon of greater numbers of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has little to do with a rejection of spirituality and much to do with a rejection of the perceived limitations of religious institutions.  In 2007, the Barna Group, an Evangelical research organization that studies religion and public life, conducted a survey among young people between the ages of 16 and 29 who did not attend a Christian church.  These young people were read a series of descriptions and asked whether they associated those descriptions with Christianity.  The most common response, at 91%, was that Christians are anti-homosexual, followed by judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), and old-fashioned at 78%.  In contrast, only 41% thought of Christians as genuine and 30% thought of Christianity as relevant.

Another interesting part of this analysis of contemporary religious practice and observance is that even as fewer Americans belong to any specific religious institution, an increasing number of Americans claim to participate in multiple faith communities.  Thirty five percent of Americans say they attend multiple places, and twenty four percent say they attend services of multiple religions.  Diana Butler Bass comments on this trend when she writes, “It might be easy to accuse these people of sloppy thinking or spiritual silliness, of participating in a thoughtless mélange of post-modern goofiness. But that would not be the case.  Their spiritual lives reflect considered choices, and they well illustrate that religious identity – as well as religious belief and religious behavior – are not static.  Religion, in all its dimensions – belief, behavior, and belonging – is in dynamic and dramatic states of transition away from what was once accepted and normal.  New possibilities and questions have opened up for all of us.”

Diana Butler Bass writes from the perspective of a mainline Christian.  The “rise of the nones” has meant a decline across the Christian spectrum, from evangelicals to Roman Catholics, but nowhere has the decline been more apparent than within traditional mainline Protestantism.  The response of many Christians to the rise of the nones has been a reaction of grief.  It has included despair, denial, worry, sadness, and even anger and blaming.  The United Church of Christ, a progressive Christian movement and our closest Christian cousins, published a rant on their denominational home page written by a UCC minister.  The piece was entitled, Spiritual but not Religious? Please stop boring me.  “Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person,” the piece went.  “You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.”

I’m reminded of that line from the reading, “Critics assail religious choice as selfish, individualistic, consumerist, narcissistic, navel-gazing, disloyal, thoughtless.”  It is no wonder that the spiritual but not religious “nones” answer back that those in the church are – what were the words again? – judgmental, hypocritical, and old-fashioned.

As Unitarian Universalists what does the rise of the “nones” mean for us?  The first thing that I might note is that Unitarian Universalism is a very small religion.  We represent one half of one tenth of one percent of the American population.  Accordingly, big changes in the culture at large don’t necessarily have a specific impact on the life of UUs or the life of this church.  If someone tells you that scoring is down in college football, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the quarterback at K State is having a bad season.

On another level, the rise of the “nones” can be seen potentially as a positive development for Unitarian Universalists.  Peter Morales seems to think that the “nones” are our type of people.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that someone who likes having eighty two thousand choices at the coffee shop might enjoy a class called “Building Your Own Theology”, or that someone who has an affinity for learning about different world religions might find our approach to be a breath of fresh air.  As a religion that does not put forward an orthodox doctrine, we offer a community where someone can feel free and not suffocated.

At the same time, I think the challenge for us is to articulate our own connection to tradition, community, practice, service, and history.  “Nice to meet you, none.  I am a some.”

Over the next four weeks, I’ll be delivering a sermon series about the foundations of liberal religion, about our particular way of being somes.  I’ll talk about liberal religion as radically welcoming.  I’ll talk about how we are a religion that is beyond belief, how we need not think alike to love alike.  I’ll talk about how liberal religion requires us to follow our own conscience, and I’ll talk about how liberal religious communities save lives.  And, we’ll be doing this all in our new church home.  The somes, despite the bad rap they get, are the builders of institutions, the creators of community, the organizers of ministries, the conveners of groups.  We get people to come together and work together.  We connect people together.

Whether it is Diana Butler Bass’ book, or the Time Magazine article, or the Barna survey, over and over again we hear that the somes think the nones are flakey, consumerist, and self-centered and that the nones think the somes are arrogant, judgmental, and condescending.  I do this work of ministry because I am convinced, because I believe, that the best antidote to bad religion is not no religion, but better religion.  But I also recognize that as a some, I am not doing my religion any favor by putting the nones down.

Hello none, nice to meet you.  I am a some.  “Tell me of despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” writes the poet Mary Oliver.  This might be the beginning of a wonderful friendship.  My response to the nones is to try to become a better some.