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Religious Skeptics Follow Own Code Instead of Creed : Beliefs: 13% in O.C. do not belong to a church or temple, mostly because of individual perceptions of God.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beset by personal tragedies over the years, 19-year-old Jason Cohn is convinced that there is no God.

“When I prayed that my dad did not have heart disease, he did and had to have a (multiple) bypass--then brain cancer,” said Cohn, a computer data analyst in Huntington Beach. “The times when I’ve needed help and support, I never received any from the praying. Mostly you pray for people to get better and suddenly they get worse.”

Cohn’s views reflect a religious skepticism among some Orange County residents that ranges from a refusal to follow any one set of religious beliefs to outright atheism.

This skepticism revealed itself in several ways in The Times Orange County Poll, which surveyed religious views among 600 adults.

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In answer to one question, 13% of county residents said they had no religious preference--more than the percentage of people who professed to be Mormons, Greek or Russian Orthodox, or of Jewish or other non-Christian religions combined.

At the same time, 9% of those polled said “no” or “I don’t know” when asked whether they believe in God or a universal spirit.

The findings come as no surprise to people who study religion.

“There are far more people today who are skeptical about the claims of one religion or another when they are confronted with a variety of religions in our midst, with each one claiming that theirs is the ultimate truth,” said Gerald Larue, a religion professor at USC.

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“I think a lot of people have said, ‘I don’t need this anymore. I can lead a good, ethical life without the teachings of a particular church,’ ” he said.

The poll, the most comprehensive survey ever undertaken of the county’s spiritual life, questioned 600 people on topics ranging from individual religious practices to the belief in a spiritual other world.

According to the poll, conducted for The Times by Mark Baldassare & Associates of Irvine, single people are nearly twice as likely as married people to say they have no religious preference--21%, compared with 11%.

Take Chris Broders, 23, a single pharmaceutical sales representative in Mission Viejo. He said he believes that religion is merely a “crutch” for those incapable of solving their problems. Broders, who was not raised in a religious household, said he has never had any interest in organized religion.

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“It seems that people who have run into trouble and have a hard time believing in themselves believe in religion,” Broders said. “I feel that I deal with things differently, so I don’t feel I would need to look to someone to help me out of a situation other than my peers or parents.”

Kathleen, another poll respondent who described herself only as a “middle-aged Orange County resident,” altogether rebuts the notion that there is a God.

“I don’t think there’s a God out there. I have seen no evidence of it,” she said. “I think just because things are not necessarily explainable to us, because we’re not smart enough yet, doesn’t mean there is a God.”

Kathleen, a mother of two who attended Roman Catholic schools through the sixth grade, said she quit going to church when her parents stopped forcing her.

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“If there is a heaven and hell, this is it,” she said. “I can’t believe in any kind of God that could give us some of the incredible things like AIDS that have been put upon humanity.”

During much of this year, meanwhile, headlines were made in Orange County--known for its conservative politics and powerful churches--not by evangelists but by two boys from Anaheim Hills who filed suit against the Boy Scouts of America.

Their complaint--that the Scouts kicked them out after they refused to swear an oath to God--drew national attention.

Twins William and Michael Randall, 10, saying they firmly espouse atheism, would not pledge a “duty to God” when they took the Cub Scout oath in January.

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“I don’t think (God is) real,” Michael Randall said recently. “Nobody has his signature, nobody has any clothes that he wore. . . . I just think he’s a fairy tale.”

Clergy ascribe such negative attitudes about religion to varied factors. For one, some say, mainline denominations have generally fallen out of step with the times, failing to keep pace with rapidly changing social needs.

“We still do church the same way we have been doing it for over 2,000 years,” said the Rev. Fred Plummer, pastor at Irvine United Church of Christ. “Certain truths about a better way of living will always be there, but we have to do a better job representing those truths to people and helping them integrate them into their lives.”

But that is just part of the story.

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In today’s fast-paced society, Plummer said, many people are not willing to submit to religious discipline in hope of some future reward.

“This has tended over the last 20 or 30 years to be an instant-gratification community that is not thinking in terms of service to others. There is a whole thing about success that is in opposition to that,” Plummer said.

“There is that whole issue of, ‘What do you mean, someone else being first and me being last? What kind of a thing is that?’ ” he said, alluding to the aphorism that asks the devout to place the needs of others first.

Other religious leaders say the percentage of people whom they define as nonbelievers is probably much higher than the Times Orange County Poll suggests.

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“I’m always struck by the statistic of 90% of people believing in God, because it’s so overwhelming,” said Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’Nai Israel in Tustin. “That leaves open the question of, what does it mean to believe in God?”

Citing data collected by the Jewish Federation of Orange County, Spitz said that about 15% of the 90,000 to 100,000 Jews in the county are affiliated with a synagogue--a far smaller percentage than in many Midwestern and East Coast cities.

“The largest segment of the Jewish community in Orange County is unaffiliated, so whatever they say about their beliefs in God does not necessarily translate into a religious community,” Spitz said.

Many people who profess a belief in God rarely, if ever, set foot in a house of worship. Christian ministers have even coined a term for them: “C and Es"--short for Christmas and Easter churchgoers.

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“A lot of people think if they go to church once a year on Christmas, they belong to a church,” Plummer said. “But in my mind, it is impossible to be a Christian unless you are part of a (church) community.”

Plummer said Times Orange County Poll respondents who said they do not belong to any religion or believe in God are merely more willing to be honest about their true feelings than others.

Michael Hayes, 45, was one.

“I believe there is probably a force out there, because the creation of the universe had to come from somewhere,” he said. “But the existence of a Christian God, a Buddha, Rama, or any of the earthbound, manufactured Gods, is probably unlikely.”

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Hayes, a cabinetmaker from Buena Park, said he stopped going to the Disciples of Christ Church that his family attended while he was growing up in Tennessee because of the hypocrisy of church members.

“Specifically, I think the most relevant incident that made me stop going was when the churches were desegregating,” Hayes said. “Black people were invited to attend our church by some of our members but were refused entry by another segment. It was an ugly scene.

“It made a great impression on me, and by then I was ready to abandon blind faith and look for some other answers to my complex questions,” he said.

Hayes has not attended church in 30 years. Yet despite his beliefs, his daughter, Katherine, 19, regularly attends services at a Lutheran Church. Hayes’ son, Robert, 17, shares his father’s views.

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“They’ve been offered the opportunity to attend anytime they want,” Hayes said. “My son, Robert, has not expressed any interest.”

Tina, 34, one respondent who said she does not believe in God, said she initially lost her faith because of a “bad church experience.” Those feelings were reinforced after she was repeatedly raped as a child and again as an adult.

Tina, who was raised a devout Catholic, said she stopped going to church 20 years ago when her priest began to ask her sexually explicit questions during confession. She asked that her last name not be published, fearing that her professed atheism could hurt the preschool she runs.

The priest “kept asking me questions about masturbation, which I thought was totally ridiculous,” the South County resident said. “It just turned me against the whole thing.

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“I was also a very inquisitive person, and I wanted answers that would satisfy me,” she said. “First of all, if there is a God, why can’t we see him? There was never an answer to satisfy me.”

As she grew older, she said, she became all the more convinced that there is no God. What kind of God would have allowed her to be molested for years as a child, then raped again as a 19-year-old college student, she asked.

“I believe in my own spirituality,” said Tina, who is married to a former minister and has a 12-year-old son. “I believe the higher being is myself. I can do good and I can do bad.”

Then there are those such as Jefferson Sickles, 23, who are straddling a line between belief and non-belief.

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“I won’t deny that (God) does exist, but I won’t argue for it, either,” Sickles said. “I think religion is created by man and does not substantiate the fact that there is a God.”

Sickles, a Navy hospital corpsman who lives in El Toro, attended a Presbyterian church briefly while growing up in Portland, Ore. But at age 10, he lost interest and stopped.

He had attended services mainly to spend Sundays with his friends, rather than for the religious education, he said. His parents, both agnostics who never went to church themselves, had left the decision entirely up to him.

“I think if there is a God, I don’t think he would have wanted me down here giving thanks to him every time I turned around,” Sickles said.

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“I think he would have wanted me to do something with my life. I’m not a religious person, but I think I have morals and ethics that God would want me to have.”

A Look at the Series

Sunday: Religion and beliefs--a Times Orange County poll.

Monday: A look at full-service churches.

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Today: Rejecting the religious mainstream.

Wednesday: The challenge for parents.

Thursday: The super-churches.

Friday: Mixing church and state.

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How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Orange County Poll, the most comprehensive poll ever taken on religious beliefs and practices in Orange County, was conducted by Mark Baldassare & Associates. The telephone survey of 600 Orange County adult residents was conducted Oct. 4-7 on weekend days and weekday nights using a computer-generated random sample of telephone numbers. The margin of error is plus or minus 4%. For subgroups, such as church members, the margin would be larger.

What We Believe

BELIEF IN GOD

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“Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?”

Orange County O.C. Church-goers Yes 91% 99% No 6 1 Don’t know 3 0

RELIGIOUS PREFERENCES

“What is your religious preference?”

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Orange County

Protestant: 49%

Catholic: 28%

Mormon: 3%

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Eastern Orthodox: 1%

Jewish: 2%

Other religions: 4%

None: 13%

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LIFE AFTER DEATH

“Do you believe in life after death?”

Orange County O.C. Church-goers U.S. (1990) Yes 67% 82% 71% No 24 14 19 Don’t Know 9 4 10

BELIEF IN HEAVEN

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“Do you believe there is a heaven where people who live good lives are eternally rewarded?”

Orange County O.C. Church-goers U.S. (1981) Yes 67% 83% 71% No 24 11 21 Don’t Know 9 6 8

BELIEF IN HELL

“Do you think there is a hell, to which people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally damned?”

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Orange County O.C. Church-goers U.S. (1981) Yes 49% 67% 53% No 41 25 37 Don’t Know 10 8 10

THE SUPERNATURAL

“Do you believe that it is possible to have contact with the supernatural, such as ghosts and spirits of the dead?”

Yes No Don’t Know Orange County 36% 57% 7% 18 to 34 years 48 47 5 35 to 54 37 54 9 55 and older 13 80 7 Church-goers 31 61 8 Non-goers 39 54 7

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REINCARNATION

“Do you believe in reincarnation, that is, that after people die they can come back and have another life on Earth?”

Yes No Don’t Know Orange County 22% 68% 10% 18 to 34 years 25 67 8 35 to 54 24 67 9 55 and older 14 73 13 Church-goers 15 80 5 Non-goers 28 60 12

ASTROLOGY

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“Do you believe that astrology, that is, the study of the stars and the planets, can give you insight into your life?”

Yes No Don’t Know Orange County 13% 83% 4% 18 to 34 years 19 79 2 35 to 54 9 88 3 55 and older 9 84 7 Church-goers 8 89 3 Non-goers 17 79 4

Source: 1991 Times Orange County Poll, Gallup Polls


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