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The many reasons that people aren’t “religious”

The many reasons that people aren’t “religious”

Americans apparently hate to call themselves “religious.” Instead they like to think of themselves as “spiritual,” “faithful,” or “holy.” But why they hate religion varies dramatically.

Michelle Boorstien of the Washington Post looks at the different reasons why many Americans hate the word “religion.”

On one side of the spectrum are people such as prominent liberal scholar Diana Butler Bass, author of last year’s “Christianity After Religion,” who says the word “religion” is laden with negative, hurtful and political baggage. The 20 percent of Americans who now call themselves unaffiliated with any religious group see religion as much too focused on rules.

On the other side are people such as super-popular shock pastor and writer Mark Driscoll, an evangelical conservative whose sermons have such titles as “Why I hate religion.” He preaches that the institutional church has wrongly let people feel good about themselves for their actions (such as going to worship services) instead of what they believe (which should be the Bible’s literal truth, in his view).

A member of Driscoll’s church produced one of early 2012’s most shared videos, “Why I love Jesus but hate religion,” which has been watched more than 25 million times. Set to cool music, it opens with a young man asking, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” Later, it characterizes most churchgoers as hypocrites and religion as a Band-Aid and “like spraying perfume on a casket.”


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Harriet Baber

There are a number of things going on. One is generic anti-institutional bias, of which anti-church bias is just a special case. Maybe even more so a taste for syncretism, that comes from a very pragmatic view of metaphysical claims. When it comes to metaphysics or religion, most don’t believe there’s really any “objective” truth–it’s a matter of what feels good or “works.” So they explore various “philosophies” and therapeutic programs to see what will “work” for them–think of all the self-help books in the average non-academic bookstore. They see “religion” as confining–locking adherents into a doctrinal package. They think, hey, I like Jesus and the Golden Rule but I also like karma and reincarnation, and mindfulness meditation works for me. Religion is buying into a program that excludes some of this–spirituality means I can pick and choose what suits me.

Instead of being patronizing or hostile to this take, I think the Church needs to respond sympathetically, to recognize the legitimate interests of people who want to customize their “spirituality” in this way.


what they believe (which should be the Bible’s literal truth, in his view).

I think we can easily dispense w/ “the Bible’s literal truth, in”, here. In the Fundy mindset (e.g., MDriscoll’s), “Biblical truth” and “literal” are meaningless disclaimers for “My Way or the Highway (to Hell)”.

I think that’s the problem w/ “religion”. It’s perceived as a cover for “Someone Else’s Certitude (Now, with Power-Over!)”.

It’s no wonder people flee from that.

JC Fisher

Harriet Baber

As I said, people are turned off by “rules.” But the real issue is that the public, folkish aspect of religion has disappeared: the ceremonies, the myths, the rites of passage embedded in the culture–the “Christendom” that Kierkegaard attacked. So when Americans (and others) reject “religion” they aren’t thinking of Bishop Mysnster’s happy Copenhagen Sunday churchgoing. They’re thinking of ideologically driven Evangelicalism, of “rules,” of religion as a matter of personal, countercultural conviction and the promotion of a socially conservative agenda.

I’m with Bishop Mynster. When I think religion I think of buildings and rituals, music, rites of passage–all part of the ceremonial life of the community that doesn’t impose any burdens on anyone, doesn’t take any serious commitment, and is simply pleasant–like an afternoon in the park, or the 4th of July fireworks, or a farmers market. No belief or commitment required.

Why should we want happy superficial religiosity? First because it’s in and of itself pleasant. We live in a world deprived of ceremony–most people don’t even have family dinner at the table, the most basic social ceremony. Secondly, because this shallow, trivial religiosity keeps religion ticking over–it keeps religious language alive so that if/when people want more they have the language, and the conceptual scheme, to deal with it.

I argued for this: I don’t know if it’s feasible anymore to revive this kind of happy, public religiosity since there’s been so much pushback recently. But I wish the Church would have a shot.

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