This is an interesting article, in large part for what it leaves out. It has far more content about religion, and interviews many religious leaders, a few non-religious people, but no non-religious leaders.

It makes statements that presume that those who don't go to church are actually religious, just 'unchurched'. In the end, it implies that spirituality and values education are in the realm of religion. It does have some interesting data on religious beliefs by state. In California, 19% of people said that they had no religion. Only the Catholics at 32% have a larger proportion.

- Mark Thomas


Charting the unchurched in America

by Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY

SEATTLE — Americans almost all say religion matters, yet more people than ever are opting out. Not just out of the pews. Out from under a theological roof altogether. In 2001, more than 29.4 million Americans said they had no religion — more than double the number in 1990, and more than Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians all added up — according to the American Religious Identification Survey 2001 (ARIS).

People with no religion now account for 14% of the nation, up from 8% when The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, authors of the ARIS, conducted its first survey of religion in 1990. Today the range stretches from 3% with no religion in North Dakota to 25% in Washington state.

For them, Sundays are just another Saturday.

Laura Terry of Whidbey Island, Wash., spent a recent Sunday watching her family scale the four-story rock spire at sports mecca Recreational Equipment Inc. in downtown Seattle. While she acknowledges a Catholic heritage, rules and rituals didn't interest her.

"We haven't gone to church since we were children," she says. "Our kids go to (private) school, where they learn the philosophy of all religions, and I think that's enough. They're happiest when we're out looking for adventure every weekend."

The six states with the highest percentage of people saying they have no religion are all Western states, with the exception of Vermont at 22%.

"I always think the West is leading not only the U.S., but the world, that in a sense we are the edge of history," says Donald Miller of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

But Miller can't say whether these statistics are signs of a secular America to come, one nation under whatever, or merely a reconfiguration of traditional beliefs under new banners.

Neither is there a way, yet, to measure the impact of this increasingly restless spirit on society — in debates on cloning, prayer in schools, abortion or the death penalty, in votes for president of the nation or the local school board, in the community roles played by churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.

Look at two traditional venues of religious expression: charity and values education.

Giving USA, which tracks philanthropy, says about half of all charitable dollars go to religious purposes. Sylvia Ronsvalle of empty tomb inc., in Champaign, Ill., which studies church giving, worries that if "religion doesn't teach the basic lessons of personal giving, where will people learn it?"

However, Carl Dudley of the Hartford (Conn.) Seminary's Institute for Religion Research, which issued a study last year examining the nation's 350,000 congregations, says unchurched America, for all its glorification of individuality and spiritual exploration, still puts mighty volunteer time and financial muscle into programs to help communities. Programs such as literacy training, scouting or AIDS walks "attract a lot of people who act out their faith even if they don't confess it."

"A huge number of people see volunteering for a soup kitchen or tutoring children as a religious activity," Dudley says. "This is the kind of altruism nurtured by the church but not exclusive to it."

The Rev. Stephen Burger, executive director of the 270-member Association of Gospel Missions, recalls that during the 15 years he served Seattle's Union Gospel Mission, "I had many donors who didn't share my convictions but trusted what we did.

"Our volunteers were the kind of people who didn't show up out of custom, or to impress a boss or co-workers. They came out of a real commitment to the work you are doing," Burger says. "Seattle, Los Angeles and San Jose aren't exactly citadels of traditional religion, but the missions there are meeting multimillion-dollar budgets."

And parents who say they have no religion say they, too, can teach their children well.

"On Easter, my son and I go camping," says Ralph Leitner of Seattle, as 10-year-old Peter conquers the REI pinnacle. Leitner, an Eagle Scout, teaches a catechism of nature. "You can't help but be spiritual out there."

But that can be pretty thin gruel for soul food, says Christian radio talk-show host Dick Staub, 53, who was born and raised in the West. His show focuses on those junctures "where belief meets real life."

"Lots of people will tell you they are on a spiritual journey," says Staub, a regular churchgoer. "Then along comes a moment when something happens — your mother dies or your child has cancer or Sept. 11 happens — and there you are wandering around saying, 'Whatever.' People want help connecting, creating community and seeing God in other people. But religious institutions have been discredited, so they are trying to do it outside the churches."

A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll in January also finds traces of this shift away from religious identity: 50% of Americans call themselves religious, down from 54% in December 1999. But an additional 33% call themselves "spiritual but not religious," up from 30%, and about one in 10 say they are neither.

Experts see people looking upward, inward, online and out-of-doors for the comfort, connection and inspiration they once sought in formal sanctuaries. Their "spirituality" is unhemmed by ritual, Scripture or theology.

"People aren't really saying, 'I have no religion.' They are saying, 'None of the above,' " says University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark, co-author of Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion.

He sees the shift as an expression of culture, history and immigration patterns — accentuated in the Western states by waves of pioneers, refugees, entrepreneurs and restless youth.

"People who believe in God — and they do — who pray — and they do — are not secular, they are just unchurched. They've never been to church and, in many cases, their parents didn't go either," Stark says.

Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham, shakes his head for those soloists on the spirituality frontier.

"It's a clichι now to call institutional religion 'oppressive, patriarchal, out of date and out of touch,' " says Galli, who was a pastor in Sacramento for a decade.

"So what else is new? I feel sorry for those people who don't think there's anything greater than themselves. It must feel like a lonely and frightening world for them.

"Lone-ranger spirituality is not conducive to taking us to the depths God designed us to go. It leaves out the communal dimension of faith. If you leave out the irritations, frustrations and joy that community entails, you miss something about God."

Among the majority who do claim a religious identity, in the West and nationwide, some of the highest rates of growth for all Christian groups were in the umbrella categories — 12 times more people call themselves "non-denominational" since 1990 and four times more call themselves evangelical.

Sociologist Stark observes, "Most people change where they go, not whether they go to church."

Washington Cathedral, a thriving 2,000-member evangelical Christian church nestled into a valley in Redmond, Wash., buzzes with ministries for every niche group and social need. Associate pastor Linda Skinner, 53, quips, "We are not organized religion, we're disorganized religion. We like to say we're 'interdenominational,' since 'non-denominational' sounds so 'anti.'"

The drum set, the video screen, the glass wall of the sanctuary facing a man-made waterfall cascading into a baptismal pool and an altar engraved with "God is Love" make it inviting for worshipers to pick up a latte at the church coffee bar and tote their cup on in for a rousing round of praising Jesus.

"We say we major on the majors and minor on the minors. There are some things specifically in the Bible that are major: Jesus is the Son of God. He died on the cross so we may have forgiveness of our sins. But all the other things, like what age to baptize or how often to give communion and who gets communion, we say are the minor things we can all disagree on," says Skinner, skating past issues that once prompted wars.

The majority of Americans, 81% according to ARIS, still do claim a religion. They represent a counterargument to the theory that the more developed a country — in education, occupations, science and technology — the more its people move away from religion, says Ronald Inglehart, who heads the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

Americans break the mold. Inglehart says, "Even if you look at the easiest measure of religiosity — church attendance — the USA has 30% to 32% per week depending on which poll you look at, but comparably wealthy countries in Northern Europe have 5% to 15%."

According to the World Values Survey, conducted by sociologists in 65 nations since 1981, "We see (a religious attitude) when we ask how often people spend time thinking about the meaning and purpose of life. We see it in people's attitudes toward the environment and in the growth of a worldview that sees all life as sacred and invests nature with dignity and sacred quality," Inglehart says.

"'Thou shalt not pollute' is a new commandment that has snuck into the canon, even in public schools where old-fashioned moral instruction is supposedly taboo. The environmental and peace and gender-equality movements are clearly inculcating values without being specifically religious," he says.

The desire to explore and celebrate beliefs and teach treasured values to the next generation is still with Americans, even if they don't call it "religion," he says.

"Contrary to the well-known secularization theory that God is dead and will soon drop off the consciousness map, the USA is a holdout. Spirituality is actually growing in the USA."

Contributing: Anthony DeBarros

» Back to Atheists of Silicon Valley Home «

» Back to Atheists of Silicon Valley Debate page «