NEWS FEATURE: The shifting shapes of belief: New books survey the religious landscape

c. 1999 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ In his 1965 book,"The Secular City,"theologian Harvey Cox predicted the imminent collapse of traditional religion."One year later, a provocative Time magazine cover story asked,"Is God Dead?" But by now it has become crystal clear that a secular city is about as likely as shorter work weeks or paperless offices."It would appear that news of God's death will always be premature,"writes Michael Shermer in"How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science"(Freeman), one of three new books describing the shifting shapes of contemporary American belief.

The most insightful of the new studies is Wade Clark Roof's"Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion"(Princeton)."Religion in the United States is like a brilliantly colored kaleidoscope ever taking on new configurations of blended hues,"writes sociologist Roof, who has updated his acclaimed 1993 book,"A Generation of Seekers." Roof revisited some of the baby boomers he interviewed earlier, and who are remaking the American religious landscape in their own image. His new study illuminates seemingly contradictory reports about the current state of belief, concluding that while religion may be losing some its influence in public life, spirituality is becoming a more important component of people's personal lives.

Roof, who was raised a Methodist, finds a growing discontent with secular"salvations"such as progress, science or careers and"a yearning for something that transcends a consumption ethic and material definitions of success."Like Lester Burnham, played by actor Kevin Spacey in the film"American Beauty,"boomers seem to be saying,"I have lost something, but I'm not exactly sure what it is." Their yearning has given birth to something Roof calls"a quest culture,"which is characterized by"a deep hunger for a self-transformation that is both genuine and personally satisfying."For some, this quest has led to church, while others draw inspiration and guidance from books, therapy, self-help-groups, the Internet and popular culture."There is a staggering openness to exploring possibilities of belief,"writes Roof, who notes that auto makers have christened boomer-targeted vans and SUVs with quasi-spiritual names like Explorer, Voyager, Pathfinder, Discovery, Odyssey and Quest.

George Gallup Jr. has been tracking people's religious views for more than half a century, and during that time one things hasn't changed a bit: Americans remain the most religious people on the planet. Consistently, around 95 percent of Americans have reported that they believe in God,surpassing Canadians (70 percent of whom believe) or Britons (at 61 percent).

But as Gallup reports in"Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs"(Morehouse), interest in spirituality is booming."The percentage of Americans who say they feel the need in their lives to experience spiritual growth has surged from 58 percent in 1994 to 82 percent in 1998,"writes Gallup, an Episcopal layman, and co-author D. Michael Lindsay.

Church and synagogue attendance and membership figures have remained remarkably stable over the years, with around 40 percent of Americans attending weekly, and around 70 percent saying they belong.

Still, members don't give their churches the kind of unquestioning loyalty they once did. For example, 79 percent of U.S. Catholics say they are far more likely to follow the dictates of their own conscience than the teachings of the pope.

Gallup's hard statistics are fleshed out by Roof's more nuanced analysis.

Roof breaks baby boomers into five major subgroups: born-again Christians (who constitute one-third of the total); mainline Catholics and Protestants (dwindling at 25 percent of the whole); metaphysical believers and seekers (who constitute 14 percent of the population but have a larger impact than their numbers might indicate); dogmatists (who consider themselves"religious"but not"spiritual,"at 15 percent) and secularists (neither religious nor spiritual, and counting for 12 percent).

Members of all these groups exhibit a mix-and-match approach to meaning that is closer to a jazz musician's improvisational style than a choir member's more classical approach."The real story of American religious life in this half century is the rise of a new sovereign self that defines and sets limits on the very meaning of the divine,"writes Roof.

In their quest for meaningful spiritual lives, boomers want to be grounded, but at the same time they want to remain fluid."There is,"writes Roof,"the dilemma of wanting social support and community, yet resisting too much infringement on personal space." Author Michael Shermer is the director of the Skeptics Society, and he says surveys of that group's members find that one-third think it"very likely"or"possible"that there is a God. In"How We Believe,"Shermer finds that people describe their own beliefs as rational and logical while saying others believe in God for emotional need and comfort.