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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.