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.”
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.”
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.”The percentage of young people who claim no religious identity is skyrocketing…
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.