Sunday, August 9, 2009

Christians, atheists and the Barna Group - or, Why Everyone is Wrong

If you ask one of the painfully vocal members of society about the nature of religion in the US, you would get one of two answers, that run something like this: "religion is an elaborate hoax, wherein a vast majority of otherwise reasonable citizens allow themselves to be convinced, on blind faith, that their relationship with a made-up, invisible entity who appeared on earth 2000 years ago only to be killed and then rise from the dead in an effort to undo what two naked folks in a garden did even longer before that because of a talking snake, will assure them a favorable position in the afterlife;" (example) or, "the fate of our nation as a godly, Christian nation is at stake, because evils - in the form of socialist government, atheist teachers in our schools, lack of patriotism, women working, terrorism, etc - are assaulting us from every side, and we must stand up to it and fight it with the help of Christ Jesus amen" (example).
All you have to do is spend five minutes on the internet to feel as though there is an ever-widening chasm between the two sides - religious and nonreligious - brought about by the ever-narrowing beliefs of the proponents of one side or the other. The fact that the "issue" of "religion and science" must be discussed at all, let alone so hotly debated, is proof itself of the schism. Or is it?

There are several dilemmas one encounters when trying to determine precisely what the real state of religiosity is. First is the use of broad, sweeping and ultimately incorrect generalizations. If we were to trust the few on either side who claim to "know" such things (the ones who write books or make movies about it), we would be forced to believe one of the two statements presented above; we would have to choose sides because, so far as we've been told, there are only two sides. Despite my conviction that I somehow lay outside of the given classifications, surely I must be the outlier, given that "all religious people" believe one thing and "all nonreligious people" another? We each find that, thanks to the generalizing which serves only to broaden the gap, we stand precariously in the canyon, wondering which side to attempt to climb. A second issue is in the personalities who make these generalizations. The most outspoken on any given issue tend to be the most opinionated, which also means they are probably farthest from the "straight and narrow path" at the center. And the farther one strays from that center, the more one becomes convinced that it cannot exist at all. I've personally known both atheists and fundamentalist, born-again Christians who assumed, in any debate, that no middle ground was attainable: either you held one extreme opinion or the other (There are many examples of this I could cite. Consider the Baptist who felt that anyone arguing the sanctity of life must fall into one of two camps: either active remorse over every accidentally squished insect, or belief that all murder is justified at all times. Consider, also, the atheist who believed that, since I made the statement "It is the narcissist who believes the [spiritual] experience pertains only to himself and not to something greater," I must also mean that a non-narcissist is someone who believes his spiritual experience to mean, as he put it, "that the entire universe has been revealed to me, and absolute morality as well, which in turn means that those who have different, spiritual experiences and conclusions are wrong and perhaps should be killed (or burned, then killed) because their experiences don't agree with my experiences." Right.). One never hears of a prophet with a message of moderation and mediation in these times; there are no Dawkins-Moreland crossbreeds. The infinitesimally small number of times a person with a reconciliatory message does appear, they are quickly branded as heretical by both sides. Such is the nature of the divide.
Is there any hope? Are we doomed to fly farther and farther apart, as two oppositely charged ions, or is it possible that we can be reunited in a neutral center? Is it at all possible that we already exist in that more or less balanced state?

It is in this light that I would like to point out a recent Barna Group study. According to the poll, 88% of Americans feel that "religious faith is very important in [their] life." However, 64% of those polled indicated that "they are completely open to carrying out and pursuing [their] faith in an environment or structure that differs from that of a typical church." A whopping 71% of Americans said they are "more likely to develop my religious beliefs on my own, rather than to accept an entire set of beliefs that a particular church teaches." Of those who professed themselves as Christians, only 55% "strongly agreed" that the Bible "is accurate in all of the principles it teaches" (note that this is not the same as believing that the Bible is the literal, infallible word of God). Another interesting note is as follows, to quote the study's authors:
Levels of distrust toward churches, church leaders and organized Christianity have been growing over the past two decades. That concern – along with the heightened independence of Americans and the profound access to information that has characterized the past decade – may have led to the emergence of a large majority of adults feeling responsible for their own theological and spiritual development. Other studies have shown an inclination for people to view a local church as a supplier of useful guidance and support, but not necessarily a reliable source of a comprehensive slate of beliefs that they must adopt.
Across the board, the research showed that women are driving these changes. This is particularly significant given prior research from Barna showing that women are more spiritually inclined, are the primary shapers of family faith experiences, and are the backbone of activity in the typical conventional church. Specifically, Barna discovered that women were more likely than men to pursue their faith in a different type of structure or environment (68% of women, 59% of men); to sense that God is motivating people to experience faith in different ways (79% vs. 60%, respectively); and to be willing try a new church (50% vs. 40%).
Another report, based on a poll by the City University of New York several years ago, indicated that those within the US population who define themselves as charismatic, pentecostal, Church of Christ, or born-again (the kinds of denominations more likely to be involved in the anti-science debate because of a stronger belief in the infallibility of the Bible) is significantly less than 10% of the population, and likely half that. About 14% of the respondents listed themselves as "not religious," and 4% ended up in the "other" category: Baha'i, spiritualist, Sikh, wiccan. Only 0.4% of those who responded, however, classified themselves as strictly "atheist" (less than 3% of those who claimed to be "not religious").

Statistically speaking, anyway, it looks like we are mostly in the middle.

The "angry atheists" and "fierce fundamentalists" who drive the wedge between sides amount to only about 5% of the entire US population. The other 95% of us have our doubts, our misgivings, are willing to examine our beliefs and alter them as necessary. The other 95% of us remain somewhere inside the gap, surrounded by a vocal but unrepresentative group of those who would tell us who we really are and what we should really think.

Don't listen to the hype. Don't believe those who would tell you that you must be this or you must be that, or those who would tell you that your neighbor must be this or must be that. Your neighbor is the same as you: unsure, searching for answers, now and then feeling confused by it all. And are we not meant to love our neighbors as ourselves?


  1. Hi, Nuclear.Kelly-

    Just dropping in! What a beautiful post. I am enjoying our discussion over on the Heresy article in religion dispatches, and I find my ears burning over here! I think I speak for most of my fellow atheists that humanism is far, far more important than atheism in our world view. I mean, why be defined by something that doesn't even exist? We find atheism to be correct, and find it highly annoying that religious delusions of such kaleidoscopic range should still find footing in our society, not to mention in our politics.

    But as you mention, the tide is turning, very slowly, and someday, people will take more and more responsibility for their own spiritual paths. I might even put in a plug for my own statement on the issue. Anyhow, all this is no reason not to enjoy each other and the lives that are so precious.

  2. My ears have long since given up burning. I think the entire state of Tennessee is probably praying fervently for me.
    I appreciate that our debate thusfar has been remarkably civil - I had a great debate with a guy who believes cold fusion is real last year (which descended, I'm sorry to say, into a lot of ugly name-calling). I also think it's rather amusing that, upon responding to you over at RD, I only then read your "spiritual atheist" post, and laughed at the similarity.
    The main problem I see, from my personal standpoint, is that when I say "religion," I usually mean something much different than what my sparring opponent assumes I mean. To me, "true religion" (or spirituality) doesn't tell me whether the bag of parts became a 747 (to use Dawkin's example) because God spoke and it was so, or because the bag shook for a long time and the parts slowly fell together - what "true religion" is to me is the sense of rightful awe and wonder at the bag of parts becoming a 747, regardless of how. The spiritual part of me sees the world, however that "seeing" may take place, and says, "wow."
    And that, I think, is where you and I agree. There is "no reason not to enjoy each other and the lives that are so precious."

  3. "The main problem I see, from my personal standpoint, is that when I say "religion," I usually mean something much different than what my sparring opponent assumes I mean. To me, "true religion" (or spirituality) doesn't tell me whether the bag of parts became a 747 (to use Dawkin's example) because God spoke and it was so, or because the bag shook for a long time and the parts slowly fell together - what "true religion" is to me is the sense of rightful awe and wonder at the bag of parts becoming a 747, regardless of how."

    Bravo! And this is why, despite not claiming "atheism" for myself, I often find more genuine spirituality, religiosity (from my view of it) in atheists and agnostics, than in traditional believers.

  4. Steven~
    Sad to say, I'd often have to agree with you. I've known some very fervent "believers" who, unfortunately, merely believed themselves. It had nothing to do with viewing the world as a wonderful (in the traditional sense) place, but with conforming to a very strict set of rules. Glad to hear I'm not alone! :-)

  5. Please check out this set of essays which thoroughly deconstructs the naivety at the root of what is commonly called religion in 2009--and always was.

  6. The point of the post is to explain why either extreme point of view, fundamentalist evangelical or fundamentalist atheist, is incorrect, because the majority of people are more sensible than extremists (by definition, oddly enough). I don't argue that there is or is not any naivete associated with religion. There is obviously naivete associated with any human construct, be it fundamentalist Christianity or atheism. There is naivete associated with believing there is no cause, either, or in trusting one prophet over a multitude of prophets. But remember: to be naive is not necessarily a vice.


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