Doing some research, I’m in the process of reading a book right now called Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass. In the book, Bass cites very interesting information about how Americans self-identify their relationship with the divine. For instance, in 1999, Gallup polled Americans asking whether they understood themselves to be spiritual or religious. At that time, people answered as follows:
However, only a decade later (2009), Newsweek, through Princeton Survey Research, asked the same question. But this time, Americans identified like this:
So here’s what’s interesting. When looking at religious changes in the twenty-first century, sociologists and journalists tend to talk about the growth of “spiritual but not religious” and the “new atheist” segments of society. But, the data doesn’t actually support that. The research suggests the needle has not moved in either respect. The interesting shift is from people who once called themselves “religious” to now referring to themselves as “spiritual and religious.”
Okay, what does this mean?
Clearly, people are trying to get away from the associations of religion. Butler Bass suggested that when she does her surveying, she asks people to give descriptions of religion. Words like “cold,” “outdated,” “rigid,” “narrow,” “controlling,” “embarrassment,” and “mean” are commonly used.
This distinction between spirituality and religion didn’t really exist in eras gone by, but it most certainly does in the minds of Americans today. Spirituality is understood as a transcendent, experiential, meditative, inner life search for God. Religion is understood as organized, defined, authoritative boundaries and institutions and dogma.
So what is this offensive dogma stuff that we’re all running away from?
Dogma is essentially absolute claims to certainty in the realms of belief and morality. That’s what we’re ashamed of….at least with organized religion. Consequently, we live in a world where if you say you’re spiritually searching, people will reply, “Oh. That’s nice!” But if you claim that you’ve found any spiritual truth, you’re considered something of an arrogant jerk….at least with organized religion.
Well, let’s step back and take a look at that. Anytime someone says that religions shouldn’t be so dogmatic, they’re doing the very thing they just said you shouldn’t do. To say, “don’t have such rigid beliefs” IS a rigid belief. So there’s the initial issue of a little ironic hypocrisy.
But here’s the most interesting thing. Americans have participated in a mass exodus from the dogma of religion, but have we actually left dogma behind? I’m unconvinced. I think we’ve merely become dogmatic about non-religious issues.
Here’s a little exercise. Try throwing an aluminum Diet Coke can in a regular waste receptacle in a public setting, particularly if there are any ecoriffic supermoms present. Yeah, I don’t have the guts either. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all against recycling. And I’ve read the reports that Diet Coke can shrink your brain. I’m actually okay with that, as I have a hard time finding size 7 3/4 hats anyways. It isn’t that people aren’t allowed to have opinions or preferences or make claims about what they feel is or is not wise. It’s that Americans are approaching these issues nowadays with all the moralistic vigor that previous generations approached…..you guessed it…religion.
Many Americans are passionate and adamant about parenting styles, diet preferences, gun regulations, and educational approaches. The religious fervor of PETA activists is obvious to most. College and professional sports? Skip Bayless and Stephen A Smith get religious about them every day on ESPN. Again, I’m not suggesting opinions are bad, or that even some of these issues probably deserve strong stances. What I’m suggesting is that for people who supposedly don’t like religion, many of us are awfully dogmatic and moralistic about some issues, including some non-inherently moral issues. I believe this is also why we currently have some of the most polarizing bipartisan politics that we’ve ever had as a nation. We’re not latching onto divine truth the way we once did, so instead we’re taking many neutral things and getting religious about them.
The attempt to flee religion hasn’t made us less religious. It’s made us more moralistic about nonreligious issues.
Why? It’s because humans are wired for absolute, divine truth…doctrine…dogma.
The Apostle Paul suggests at the beginning of the Book of Romans. He says,
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,(vs. 18)… Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (vss. 22-23)…They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (vs. 25) (Romans 1)
Hmmm. Paul says that when people turn away from the truth of God, even as they consider themselves less religious, they don’t really turn away from religion, they just get religious about created things rather than the Creator God. Is that what we’re looking at in post-Christian America?
Nonetheless, there’s probably a valuable point here, a humbling point for us who belong to religious organizations. We can learn from the early twenty-first century American religious exodus. Some people don’t like religion because they don’t want God to be their God. Not much we can do about that. However, others don’t like religion because even self-professing religious people sometimes get religious about nonreligious stuff. Worship style, church politics, national politics, the way people look, the way people talk, the way people dress. The “shoulds” and “oughtas” we espouse on nonreligious issues are rightly perceived by the those leaving religion as cold, controlling, unloving and unnecessary dogma. Interestingly, when Christians get religious about nonreligious issues, it’s not because they’re too closely linked to an authoritative gospel, it’s actually because they don’t understand that gospel well enough.
As Christians, each day we want to grow more dogmatic about the fact that Jesus is “the way and THE TRUTH and the life.” (John 14:6) Additionally, we’ll also want to grow increasingly less dogmatic about things not directly connected to the truth about our Savior. In fact, we want to regularly repent of the religious “truths” we believe that aren’t actually biblical.
I don’t think religion rebounds until Christians start getting dogmatic only about Jesus – about what he’s clearly done for us and what he’s clearly revealed to us.