GUEST COMMENTARY: Skeptics are the new religious

(RNS) Except for presidential candidates and some parts of the Bible Belt, the days when church membership was necessary for social acceptance are long gone. Many Americans view religion as suspect or superfluous or both.

In fact, the latest data from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life say that a record-high one in five Americans -- and one in three adults under age 30 -- are religiously unaffiliated.

So why did all 1,500 seats sell out for a debate I moderated a few months ago entitled “Has Science Refuted Religion?” at the California Institute of Technology? Why should the brilliant minds of the Caltech community even care, especially since skeptics, rather than true believers, made up the majority of the audience?

As the dean of a theology school, the question is of high interest to me, and I think I know the answer.

In my experience, most skeptics today are not dogmatic atheists or jaded cynics, though some are. Most are seekers. They include Caltech geeks but also a large swath of Americans who -- looking at our improved scientific understanding, changing social norms and increasingly pluralistic religious culture -- have decided that many rigid doctrines of the past are just no longer credible.

Critically, the majority of America’s young people are also squarely in the doubters’ camp, even the two-thirds under 30 who still identify with a religion. A groundbreaking survey by LifeWay Christian Resources found that an astounding 72 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now consider themselves “more spiritual than religious.”

While these young people are no longer members of traditional churches, they may still show up at a Sunday service now and then, looking somewhat awkward. They may pull away when pastors proclaim Jesus is the only possible way to be saved. But they are seeking, and they are finding others like themselves, and together they are beginning to change the face of American religion.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that skeptics are the new religious.

Within the Christian tradition, skeptics are often drawn to the Emerging Church movement, which is expanding rapidly. While Emergent leaders share a common admiration for the teaching of Jesus, the communities they form vary widely. Meeting sites range from homes to pubs to parks to churches to convention centers. The leaders are more often hosts and conveners than preachers and teachers of doctrine.

The Christianity they espouse is about doing and being, not creeds and orthodoxy. It’s about making space to talk and question openly. These groups focus on a living quest rather than a frozen belief. They acknowledge an awe and ecstasy bubbling up from God-knows-where that empowers them to live by the words of that radical first-century rabbi: “Love your neighbor,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Many of our students are among these new emerging leaders. They minister to seekers ranging from Caltech brainiacs to recently released felons and just about everyone in between.

Mainline churches are also joining the movement. All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., offers inspirational Sunday services in its beautiful sanctuary, but also includes a myriad of groups engaged in social justice and compassion throughout the city. Their vigorous weekly forums include speakers from a broad range of religious and activist traditions.

The same trends are emerging in other faiths as well. One of my former students, an atheist who took theology classes (not as uncommon as you might imagine), is now the Humanist chaplain for Harvard University. He’s founded a thriving community that enjoys probing discussions as well as significant humanitarian and interfaith work.

The East Side Jews of Los Angeles bill themselves as “an irreverent, non-denominational collective for Jews with confused identities.” At one meeting the group invited Jewish and Muslim comics and professors from our Claremont Lincoln University consortium to take questions from the membership and their invited Muslim guests. The discussion ranged from hilarious to deeply spiritual, and participants were clearly moved.

So the answer raised by the Caltech debate is no, science has not refuted religion. Science has refuted a great deal of dogma and doctrine, but it hasn’t stifled the quest for meaning. It hasn’t diminished the way certain simple teachings intrigue us and inspire us to action. And it hasn’t eliminated our desire to build that action into spiritual communities of investigation and change.

I see an immense yearning for these kinds of communities in America. And while it may sound strange for a seminary dean not to be bothered when these skeptics chuck traditional beliefs, I have to agree that doctrinal religion is often too rigid, too antithetical to the love and meaning that people are seeking. If science has refuted anything, it’s the notion that any institution can own the absolute truth about God. 

I'd challenge those who still believe religion is only suspect or superfluous. You are operating with stereotypes left over from the past. Something amazing is happening in American religion, and it’s time to get involved again.

Philip Clayton is the dean of Claremont School of Theology, a member of the Claremont Lincoln University consortium, where he is provost. His most recent book is "The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith," which he co-authored with Steven Knapp.

(Philip Clayton is the dean of Claremont School of Theology, a member of the Claremont Lincoln University consortium, where he is provost. His most recent book is "The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith," which he co-authored with Steven Knapp.)