Religious Affiliation

The Issue

Barna Group poll results

We hear a lot these days about the US becoming less religious, or, more specifically, has less religious affiliation. Nation-wide polls show that more and more people check off “None” when asked about religious affiliation. And that the percentage of those identifying as agnostic or atheist has risen from 16% to 23 %. What are dedicated Christians to make of such figures? Are we seeing a real downturn in religious commitment? If so, what is to be done about it?  

The answer, I think, is: “Yes,” there is a real downturn but, “No,” the figures aren’t accurate. Let’s take the downturn first.

GI Bill

Following WWII, the US Government hit on a great idea to help slow the return of 10 million GIs into the work force. The idea was to give them a free college education as a benefit of having served their country. Many of those who started college under what was called “the GI Bill” never finished,  but whether they finished or not having that opportunity forever changed their attitude toward college. Higher education, which had up to that time been available only to the wealthy, was now something the so-called “greatest generation” wanted for their children.

The result was that from roughly the middle of the last century onward, a college education was added to the expected post high school rites of passage for all but the poorest segment of the population. Moreover, the number of high school grads applying to college was given a significant boost in the 60s by the fact that going to college could exempt men from being drafted to serve in Viet Nam. The result was that by the early 70s, hundreds of thousands more high school graduates were seeking college entrance than would ever have dreamed of it.

Is Educating People Making them “Unaffiliated?”

So, am I suggesting that becoming more educated has resulted in the downturn in religious commitment? I’m sure that’s what some would like to have us believe, but it’s not quite true. It’s not simply being educated that has had the results we’re now seeing. Rather it’s the way religion has been taught at the college level across the nation for the generations since WWII.

pie charts of change

Religion courses of all types have been among the most popular in the college curriculum for a long time nation-wide. Comparative Religion, for example, has been a huge draw on all campuses from community colleges to major research universities. Students are drawn to religion courses by curiosity and by what they see as the opportunity to study a fascinating subject. The students’ expectation was a course taught from an unbiased source and point of view, as opposed to the biased sources of their childhood religious upbringing.

The reputation of being difficult that attaches to philosophy courses didn’t prevent philosophy of religion from being well enrolled. Actually,  most Introduction to Philosophy courses have regularly included the existence of God among the topics covered. It is the prevailing way these courses were handled that I see as the cause of the present-day decline in religious commitment and religious affiliation.

The Search for Unbiased Teaching

First off, the standard treatment of religious belief was not religiously neutral as opposed to the “biased” treatment of the average church, synagogue or mosque. College instructors have their beliefs and inclinations as do all other humans. And these include whether they believe in God or not. No one can expect anything different, but the average student entering college has been unprepared for that fact. Many even supposed the existence of a neutral stance from which to debate the question of God’s reality. There isn’t.

Second, the standard treatment of whether God is real was (and still is) to examine the arguments that have attempted to prove (or disprove) God’s existence. And there are, and always have been, a minority of professors who defend one or another proof. But, the vast majority left the upshot of their examination stamped “UNDECIDED.” This conclusion conveyed two great mistakes to the last four or five successive generations of American students. Without explicitly stating or examining these mistakes the following was simply accepted. 1) the way to ascertain God’s reality is by argument and proof.  And 2) the attempts at proving God’s reality have all failed. The conclusion these generations reached is that no one really knows the truth about whether God exists or not. Many choose to have no religious affiliation.

The Proofs Have Failed

Let’s take the second one first. I agree that the proofs have all failed. But I disagree that their failure leaves God’s existence in doubt. There’s a simple but important point that all attempts to prove God’s reality have overlooked: the New Testament says that God created “everything visible or invisible (Col. 1: 16). If that’s right, it includes the laws of logic, one of  the invisible creations. But if God created the laws by which we prove anything, then he is not subject to them. Applying them to God is therefore demoting him to the status of a creature. The proofs argue that God is governed by laws of proof instead of being their Creator.

Symbols of many differing faiths

The proofs have also done other mischief against their best intentions. They have led many people to think that belief in God is a theory, and therefore in need of proof. When we make theories we do, indeed, try to test them. And logical proofs are frequently part of that process. But belief in God is no theory! It is instead a report of the experience of those who have encountered God.

Experience it for Yourself

College students today need to be told to look for their own experience of God, rather than to engage in the logical evaluation of arguments. They need to be urged to read the scriptures in order to hear God speak to them. They need their own encounter with the living Creator who is not the conclusion of an argument. Instead, he is the God and Father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ.

Stewardship: A Human Calling

What Is Stewardship?

A Definition

The most basic form of stewardship is also the most encompassing form. It is a requirement of a faithful life that is first found in Genesis 2. When God places humans in charge of his creation he commands them to care for the garden of Eden. How? To leave it better than they found it (see Gen. 2: 15 by clicking here). The scriptures teach this idea in all the writings. The Bible teaches “all creation belongs to God.” Further, we are God’s vice-regents accountable for how we use and care for it. It is a responsibility that all humans bear just by being human. (For a comprehensive statement of this teaching of Scripture, see Our World Belongs to God.)

Our World Belongs to God

What does the Bible say?

The Scriptures teach us about individual accountability. How? We will be accountable for how we use the things that God’s entrusts to us as individuals along life’s way: time, talents, opportunities to serve others, and money. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that these are all gifts from God.

We tend to take time for granted until we get sick or old. We tend to think of our talents as our personal property until they begin to fade. And we tend to think of the source of our income as being our employer until we lose our job. Rightly, in such times we turn to God for help. All along, we knew deep down, “God lent us these gifts.” He did not give them away so that we can use them any way we wish. Rather, God entrusted each of these good things to us. Remember the solemn warning of Jesus, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

The “Bottom Line”

The idea of stewardship boils down to a statement like this. The whole of life is stewardship (and you thought this was all going to be about money!). Our very lives are gifts, as St Paul reminds us: “you are not your own… you have been bought with a price” (I Cor. 6:19,20).

Therefore, we who have the benefit of the worship, preaching, and ministries of our churches are among those who have been given much. Along with these gifts come opportunities to work for God’s kingdom by serving others. That could be simply by inviting them to worship with us. But we also have the opportunity to support such kingdom works as a food cupboard, a soup kitchen, and the mission work of our congregation.  It is also open to us to serve in worship, in the church choir, or in Sunday school, in the care of the sick, or any other of the Church’s other outreach programs.

An Affordable Way to Receive Training

It is to aid with this sort of work that the Christian Leaders Institute offers its courses – free – to anyone who wants to improve their ability to serve their church. For all these reasons, we need to begin to think about stewardship as an ongoing part of our everyday lives rather than as a concern only about pledging of money to our church.  The call to service comes to all, and comes from God Himself. As Jesus once put it: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Roy Clouser, PhD

Prof Emeritus

CLI Philosopher in Residence

Amusing Ourselves: Life Has Changed

New Year’s Musings

Since I wrote a post-Christmas reflection, it seems only right to follow it up with a reflection on the new year. As I pondered the reality of time’s forward march, I decided to take a moment to share with you my reflections. I hope you find these musings amusing.  So here goes.

The first thing is to express my gratitude to God for seeing yet another new year. This makes 81 of them, so the gratitude could hardly be more genuine.

Of course, I don’t actually remember them all. The first new year in my lifetime was 1938, and I was not even 1 year old. But I can recall quite a number of the years since then, and am surprised by the great changes they’ve brought. I don’t mean by that the technology changes – everybody knows about that. I mean the changes in people’s attitudes.

When I Wore a Younger Man’s Clothes

For example, in the 1940’s (my youth), the average person listened to the radio a couple times a week for its entertainment value.  When the day’s work was done, folks would listen to the news (world, then national, very little local), and perhaps a comedian or two. Many comedy shows were on the radio in the 40’s.  Jack Benny, Fred Allan, Fanny Brice, and Jimmy Durante all had weekly shows. There was also Duffy’s Tavern, Blondie, and The Great Gildersleeve.  My parents withheld some shows because they were too scary for a young person like me.  Among them were  The Inner Sanctum and The Shadow. There were kids shows too.  Let’s Pretend, The Lone Ranger, and the Buster Brown show are examples. The shows were all a half hour long, and no one I knew – or knew of – heard them all every week.

In other words, the average person – kid or grown-up – listened to less entertainment in a week than the average kid now sees TV in the average day! There’s something mighty sobering about that.

Did You Know …

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Did you know that the word “amuse” means “not think?”

The kids I see today continually amuse themselves throughout just about every day. My students at the college couldn’t walk from one class to another without plugging in earbuds to hear music or podcasts. The average US home has 2.3 TV sets.  The average person in the US watches over 5 hours of TV per day.

That’s a lot of not thinking.

Maybe worship is not amusing?

We keep hearing that church attendance in the US is in decline, despite the fact that the vast majority of people regard themselves as “spiritual.” No one can say for sure what all the causes of that decline are.  I suspect one of the factors is how much more pleasant it is to be amused and how readily available the sources of amusement are.

compassion for people

Compassion for people

Attending church requires that we think about what we’re doing and to whom our worship is addressed. It requires us to reflect on our lives and attitudes in ways that are often painful. And its message – the gospel – frequently winds up demanding that we change ourselves. On top of that, it constantly reminds us of the needs of others and of our obligations to them.

In short, church worship challenges our culture of amusement. It is, therefore, something that stands in opposition to the general flow of our culture. Just as we can say in the face of any serious question, “Let’s have a drink and forget it,” so too we can avoid being confronted with the gospel’s unpleasant truths about ourselves by simply skipping worship.

A New Year’s Resolution

So how about this for a new year’s resolution? How about a little more church and a little less not-thinking  (amusing ourselves)?

 

Roy Clouser