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?