More Americans are designing own religion
Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today
September 22, 2011

More Americans are designing own religion

More Americans are designing own religion
Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today
September 22, 2011

(RNS) If World War II-era warbler Kate Smith sang today, her

anthem could be “Gods Bless America.”

That’s one of the key findings in newly released research

that reveals America’s drift from clearly defined religious denominations to faiths

cut to fit personal preferences.

The folks who make up God as they go are side by side with self-proclaimed

believers who claim the Christian label but shed their ties to traditional beliefs

and practices. Religion statistics expert George Barna says, with a wry hint of

exaggeration, America is headed for “310 million people with 310 million


“We are a designer society. We want everything customized to

our personal needs – our clothing, our food, our education,” he said. Now it’s

our religion.

Barna’s new book on U.S. Christians, Futurecast, tracks

changes from 1991 to 2011, in annual national surveys of 1,000 to 1,600 U.S. adults.

All the major trend lines of religious belief and behavior he measured ran

downward – except two:

  • More people claim they have accepted Jesus as their Savior

    and expect to go to heaven.

  • And more say they haven’t been to church in the

    past six months except for special occasions such as weddings or funerals. In

    1991, 24 percent were “unchurched.” Today, it’s 37 percent.

Barna blames pastors for those oddly contradictory findings.

Everyone hears, “Jesus is the answer. Embrace Him. Say this

little Sinner’s Prayer and keep coming back. It doesn’t work. People end up bored,

burned out and empty,” he said. “They look at church and wonder, ‘Jesus died

for this?’”

The consequence, Barna said, is that, for every subgroup of religion,

race, gender, age and region of the country, the important markers of religious

connection are fracturing.

When he measures people by their belief in seven essential doctrines,

defined by the National Association of Evangelicals’ statement of faith, only 7

percent of those surveyed qualified.

“People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a

good book. And then I believe whatever I want,’” he lamented. Southern

Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research reinforces those findings: A new survey of

900 U.S. Protestant pastors finds 62 percent predict the importance of being

identified with a denomination will diminish over the next 10 years.

Exactly, said Carol Christoffel of Zion, Ill. She drifted

through a few mainline Protestant denominations in her youth, found a home in

the peace and unity message of the Baha’i tradition for several years, and then

was drawn deeply into Native American traditional healing practices.

Yet, she also still calls herself Christian.

“I’m a kind of bridge person between cultures. I agree with

the teachings of Jesus and … I know many Christians like me who keep the Bible’s

social teachings and who care for the earth and for each other,” Christoffel

said. “I support people who do good wherever they are.”

And it’s not only Christians sampling hopscotch

spirituality. The Jewish magazine Moment has an “Ask the Rabbis” feature that

consults 14 variations of Judaism, “and there are many,” said editor and

publisher Nadine Epstein.

“The September edition of Moment asks ‘Can there be Judaism

without God?’ And most say yes. It’s incredibly exciting. We live in an era where

you pick and choose the part of the religion that makes sense to you. And you

can connect through culture and history in a meaningful way without necessarily

religiously practicing,” Epstein said.

Sociologist Robert Bellah first saw this phenomenon emerging

in the 1980s.

He sees two sides to the one-person-one-religion trend. On

the positive: It’s harder to hold on to prejudices against groups – by religion

or race or gender or sexuality – if everyone wants to be seen individually.

“The bad news is you lose the capacity to make connections.

Everyone is pretty much on their own,” he said. And all this rampant individualism

also fosters “hostility toward organized groups – government, industry, even

organized religion.”

Paul Morris, an Army medic at Fort Bragg in North Carolina

and veteran of six tours in the Middle East, said he has seen Christianity, Judaism

and Islam in action, for better and for worse, and, frankly, he’ll pass.

Morris grew up “old-style Italian Catholic,” but said he

never felt like his spiritual questions were answered. So, “I just wiped the

slate clean. I studied every major religion on the face of the planet. Every one

had parts that made sense, but there was no one specific dogma or tenet I could

really follow,” Morris said.

“So now, I call myself an agnostic – one who just doesn’t

know. What I believe is that if you can just do the right thing, it works everywhere.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Cathy Lynn Grossman writes for USA Today.)