Americans Designing a Make-Your-Own Religion

This issue’s cover story focuses on George Barna’s recent findings that Americans are prone to do-it-yourself theology. To supply another frame of reference, we adapt and reprint here what the secular world is saying about the issue. Ed.


by Cathy Lynn Grossman

(RNS) If World War IIera warbler Kate Smith sang today, her anthem could be “God[s] Bless America.”

That’s one of the key findings in newly released research that reveals America’s drift from clearly defined religious denominations to faiths cut to fit personal preferences.

The folks who make up God as they go are side by side with self-proclaimed believers who claim the Christian label but shed their ties to traditional beliefs and practices. Religion-statistics expert George Barna says, with a wry hint of exaggeration, America is headed for “310 million people with 310 million religions.”

Barna’s new book on U.S. Christians, Future-cast, tracks changes from 1991 to 2011 in annual national surveys of 1,000 to 1,600 U.S. adults. All the major trend lines of religious belief and behavior he measured ran downward–except two:

  • More people claim they have accepted Jesus as their savior and expect to go to heaven.
  • And more say they haven’t been to church in the past six months except for special occasions such as weddings or funerals. In 1991, 24 percent were “unchurched.” Today, it’s 37 percent.

Barna blames pastors for those oddly contradictory findings. Everyone hears, “Jesus is the answer. Embrace Him. Say this little Sinner’s Prayer and keep coming back. It doesn’t work. People end up bored, burned out and empty,” he said. “They look at church and wonder, Jesus died for this?'”

The consequence, Barna said, is that, for every subgroup of religion, race, gender, age and region of the country, the important markers of religious connection are fracturing.

When he measures people by their belief in seven essential doctrines, defined by the National Association of Evangelicals’ statement of faith, only 7 percent of those surveyed qualified.

“People say, I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want,'” he lamented. Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research reinforces those findings: A new survey of 900 U.S. Protestant pastors finds 62 percent predict the importance of being identified with a denomination will diminish over the next 10 years.

Sociologist Robert Bellah first saw this phenomenon emerging in the 1980s. He sees two sides to the one-person-one-religion trend. On the positive: It’s harder to hold on to prejudices against groups–by religion or race or gender or sexuality–if everyone wants to be seen individually.

“The bad news is you lose the capacity to make connections. Everyone is pretty much on their own,” he said. And all this rampant individualism also fosters “hostility toward organized groups–government, industry, even organized religion.”

Paul Morris, an Army medic at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and veteran of six tours in the Middle East, said he has seen Christianity, Judaism and Islam in action, for better and for worse, and, frankly, he’ll pass.

Morris grew up “old-style Italian Catholic,” but said he never felt like his spiritual questions were answered. So, “I just wiped the slate clean. I studied every major religion on the face of the planet. Every one had parts that made sense, but there was no one specific dogma or tenet I could really follow,” Morris said. “So now, I call myself an agnostic–one who just doesn’t know. What I believe is that if you can just do the right thing, it works everywhere.”

2011 USA Today

> Cathy Lynn Grossman writes for USA Today.


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