Some younger scientists seem more open to religious ideas
Lives full of both rejoicing and trembling -- as they should be

Would you be OK if institutional religion just disappeared?

Although people dedicated to their church, synagogue, temple, mosque or other house of worship have worried for decades now about the drift away from institutional religion, new studies show there's no single cause for the decline and, therefore, no single idea that will work to fix it.

Empty-pewsAs this Religion News Story reports, the "nones," as the religious unaffiliated are called, sometimes have "been pegged as a group that’s wholly secular and hostile to religion, or conversely as a cohort that has uniformly adopted spirituality rather than religion. They’ve also been characterized as morally directionless or civically disengaged." But, a new Pew Research Center report on America’s nones "shows the truth is more complicated."

The RNS story quotes Ryan Cragun, a professor of sociology at the University of Tampa and an adviser on the Pew study, this way: “Today, the nones kind of look like everybody else. . .At some level, we’re saying, hey, actually, this is just your neighbor.”

As this NPR story notes, the nones now make up some 28 percent of the American adult population, a figure that has been growing steadily for more than a decade -- from 16 percent in 2007, for instance.

So is it possible that at least some of the nones can be moved to return to institutional religion? Great question. But there's no certain answer.

For one thing, the beliefs and ethical standards of the nones vary all over the lot. As the RNS story puts it: "Pew’s study shows many nones do believe in something, even if it doesn’t fall into traditional religious categories. While 20% say they are agnostic and 17% identify as atheist, the majority of nones (63%) fall into the more ambiguous 'nothing in particular' category. And though only 13% say they believe in the God of the Bible, more than half (56%) say they believe in some other higher power."

One obvious question institutional religion's leaders need to ask before they come up with plans to draw in more of the nones is just who are the religiously unaffiliated saying that the "God of the Bible" is. Is it a vengeful, wrathful God who gets sick of humanity's sinfulness and failure until, finally, God decides to wipe out almost the whole population except for a guy named Noah and his family? Or is it the God who promises Abraham and later others that he'll always be their god and watch over them as a protector? Or is it maybe the God of Jesus Christ, who teaches sacrificial love and the tender care of neighbors in distress? Or all of them? Or none?

In trying to move the nones back to traditional religion of some kind, religious leaders need to know, as the NPR story reports, that "demographically, Nones also stand out from the religiously affiliated. Nones are young. 69% are under the age of fifty. They're also less racially diverse. 63% of Nones are white."

And, maybe most importantly, institutional religion must show that it isn't hypocritical. Which means it doesn't, for instance, allow priests to molest children without doing everything possible to stop them. It doesn't preach a Prosperity Gospel when such a gospel runs completely counter to the gospel Jesus preached. It doesn't merge uncritically with a political power just to be close to that power.

So if you were to draw up a plan to attract the nones back to institutional religion, what would such a plan look like? Or are you happy just to let the influence of generative religion in the country and the world slowly disappear?

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There's no question that our southern borders are a mess and that the U.S. needs comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, as this RNS opinion piece puts it, "America can both secure our borders and respect human dignity. And we are confident the voters will defy the cable TV pundits and stand up for those elected officials who follow through." I hope the authors of the piece are right, though many elected officials seem much more interested in making political points by striking fear of immigrants into the hearts of voters. This nation has depended on immigrants for a long time as we have followed the teachings of Judaism, Christianity and other faiths to "welcome the stranger." And we still need the skills and ideas that immigrants (like my maternal grandparents and paternal great-grandparents) bring to the country. But the immigration system simply must work better than it does now.

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P.S.: Change is what happens in congregations. The ones that survive and thrive understand that and deal with it creatively and without always hoping to return to the old days. Now it's the turn of the New Reform Temple, a Reform Jewish synagogue, in Kansas City deal with that again. As the congregation's leadership just announced, "After 13 years as the pulpit rabbi of The New Reform Temple, Rabbi Alan Londy will retire at the end of May and assume the title as the synagogue’s first Rabbi Emeritus. Rabbi Londy has spent more than 40 years in the rabbinate, serving congregations in New York, Florida and Maryland, before moving to Kansas City with his family in 2011 to join The New Reform Temple."


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