Letting doubters in the door


“The Rise of the Nones” is one of 10 trends changing American life, according to Time magazine’s March 12 cover story. That’s because the “nones” — those who mark “none” on surveys that ask them to identify their religious affiliation — are the fastest-growing religious group in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the increase in the unaffiliated comes at the expense of America’s mainstream religions, which means that Christianity is taking the biggest hit. Mainstream Protestant churches have lost more than a third of their members since 1960. Evangelical churches are also feeling the pinch; Southern Baptists are hurting. Various surveys illuminate this trend: About 75% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Furthermore, all traditional forms of Christian practice have sharply declined from previous decades (including church attendance, Bible study and prayer), and doubts are much sharper regarding traditional Christian beliefs.

Although a recent bumper crop of pundits likes to proclaim that we’d all be better off with no religion, I suspect that the majority of us believe that religion, in spite of its flaws, offers individuals the inspiration to be better people and to create a better nation. Seminary and church leaders, in particular, are highly motivated to staunch the decline. Unfortunately, many of them believe that what’s really needed is a return to the “faith of our fathers,” stricter adherence to creeds and (this is America, after all) better marketing methods.

I advocate a radically different solution: the Emerging Church. It’s a movement based on understanding the reasons for mainstream religion’s dramatic decline: improved scientific understanding, changing social norms, an increasingly pluralistic religious culture and more freedom to doubt and question — a freedom that until the last three centuries was mostly absent or suppressed and that is still resisted, sometimes violently, in much of the world today.

In my experience, the nones are not rejecting God. They are rejecting doctrinal requirements that they no longer find believable, along with the rigid structures of many organized religions. For that reason, the rise of the nones may well be a new kind of spiritual awakening, one in which doubters are welcome.

In the Christian tradition, for example, the Emerging Church invites participation from all who find themselves attracted to the teachings, actions and person of Jesus. It isn’t crucial that members call themselves Christians, or that they believe Bible stories literally (rather than metaphorically), or even that they are believers rather than agnostics and atheists. As long as people want to sincerely engage with the teachings of Jesus and with the communities that seek to live by those values — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “Love your neighbor,” “Blessed are the peacemakers” — they are welcome.

Given that there are already almost 10,000 religions in the world, Jewish author Eric Weiner writes that we need to “invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious.” As the dean of a theology school, I see the Emerging Church attracting an incredible diversity of people into new and experimental kinds of religious community. The lapsed faithful, exhausted refugees from mainline faiths, former evangelicals, frustrated Catholics and seekers with no background at all in organized religion are creating (in Weiner’s beautiful phrase) “a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment.”

The leaders of the movement share a common fascination with the radical teachings of Jesus, but the communities they form vary widely. Meeting sites range from homes to pubs to parks to churches to convention centers. These groups aren’t rigidly hierarchical either; their leaders are more often hosts and conveners than preachers and teachers of doctrine.

Examples of these new institutions include Ikon, a group of mostly 20-somethings that meets in a bar in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Journey, a Dallas church that convenes in pubs, restaurants and a center for the mentally disabled; and Solomon’s Porch, a community in Minneapolis that has working groups for the arts, education and outreach. Some mainline churches are joining the Emerging Church movement. In Southern California, All Saints, an Episcopal church in Pasadena, offers traditional Sunday services in its beautiful cathedral but also has myriad groups engaged in social justice and compassion programs throughout the community, as well as weekly forums where a wide range of views, including those of atheists and representatives of other faiths, are vigorously discussed.

No matter their size or structure, communities like these offer a vital connection to the infinite grace and compassion of what I’ll call the ultimate reality that binds us all — however that reality is understood (or doubted) by each of their members.

Emerging Christians don’t have a monopoly on spirituality for the nones, however. L.A.’s East Side Jews often meet for discussion, comedy nights or outreach projects. Although they bill themselves as “an irreverent, non-denominational collective for Jews with confused identities,” their events usually have a spiritual thread as well. In one meeting the group invited Jewish and Muslim comics, and professors from Claremont Lincoln University, the inter-religious consortium I work with, to take questions from the membership and their invited Muslim guests. The discussion ranged from hilarious to deeply spiritual, and participants were clearly moved.

I see an immense yearning for these kinds of communities in America. If religious leaders can quit idolizing doctrinal purity and instead create a place for people who doubt and question as well as those who believe, I believe faith in America will have a vital future. And these new models for “church” will be better equipped to work collaboratively with all Americans, no matter what their religion.

Philip Clayton is the dean of Claremont School of Theology, a member of the Claremont Lincoln University consortium. His most recent book is “The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith,” which he coauthored with Steven Knapp.