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God Without the Religion

DECEMBER 17, 2009


With E. Kinney Zalesne

This is the season for traditions: chestnuts roasting on an open fire, carolers on the doorstep, and the endless argument about the secularization of Christmas. This isn't the usual complaining about the toy and greeting card companies commercializing the holidays, but a much broader trend involving the secularization of religion around the country.

We are still a nation whose coins say "In God We Trust," where most witnesses in U.S. courts swear "so help me God," and where our school kids pledge allegiance to "one nation, under God, indivisible."

But God, as we have traditionally known Him, is evolving for more and more worshippers. Belief in the God revered by most mainstream religions -- a highly specific, paternalistic deity with an agreed-upon history and behaviors -- is on the decline.

According to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, only 76% of Americans identify as Christians, down from 86% in 1990. But interestingly, while non-Christians are not choosing Islam or Judaism, neither are they choosing atheism. A poll done by Gallup in 2008 found that 15% of Americans – up from 8% in 1999– say they don't believe in God, but they do believe in a "Higher Power" or "Universal Spirit." More and more, Americans believe that the world was created by a spiritual being, but they reject the Torah, the Koran and the New Testament as the explanation for it.

These universal-spirit worshippers, or what we call Religious Independents, are defining a secular Third Way in religion. They are like political independents who vote but refuse to affiliate with a party. Consequently, attendance at Christmas mass may be declining, but celebration of Christmas and the holidays remains as high as ever. Paradoxically, overall belief in a God is rising, while participation in organized religion is declining.

Demographically speaking, the Religious Independents, like their political counterparts, are more affluent and well-educated than traditional God-believers. We did our own poll to get at the differences between the traditionalists and the Religious Independents, and the results were striking. Americans with just a high school diploma are Religious Independents at a rate of just 10% – but attend even some college, and it shoots up to 30%. As more and more students attend college here and elsewhere, we can expect this trend to mushroom, since higher education strongly correlates with a rejection of organized religion in favor of a more amorphous notion of a Supreme Being.

The data suggest, though, that modern secularization will not lead us back to Sodom and Gomorrah, where lack of religion caused unrestrained amoral and reckless behavior. Religious Independents have a high belief in values like doing good, giving back to the community, and taking responsibility for our planet. They accept most of the Ten Commandments on moral, if not religious, grounds.

Our poll also revealed that whereas almost 70% of traditionalists say that after death, "there is either heaven or hell," 54% of the Religious Independents say that "there is only what people remember of you." A remarkable 75% of traditionalists say that they believe in angels, compared with only 45% of the Independents. And while 53% of traditionalists say they've had a "spiritual or mystical life experience that defies simple scientific explanation," only 1 in 3 Religious Independents says that--and a majority (53%) reject that statement strongly.

Perhaps most importantly, 83% of Religious Independents say it is more important to be ethical than to be devout, compared to only 64% of traditionalists. Seventy-two percent of Religious Independents say that living a good spiritual life depends on how you act, not what you believe -- compared with only 59% of traditional followers. In other words, Religious Independents have just as strong a desire for repairing the world, even as they reject the habits and practices of religion.

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