Allergic to Religion? (INHEM Notes)

When I got back from Dallas, I had the opportunity to attend the Indiana Network for Higher Education (INHEM) Connections Conference.

Here are the notes on the Keynote Presentation:

Keynote Presentation: “Allergic to Religion: The ‘Spiritual but not Religious’” by Dr. Linda Mercadante (Professor of Theology at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio; Healthy Beliefs- Healthy Spirit at

·      Religion is not an alien territory, it is God’s home for us.
·      In her family, religion was not a good thing—her Jewish mother associated religion, particularly Christianity, with the killing of Jews.
·      She was a newspaper reporter on a diocesan paper and then became an atheist.
·      “Unfettered Beliefs, Untethered Practice” – her Henry Luce Theology Award… she was investigating an ethos which
o      rejects all organized religion
o      feels all religions are the same
o      minimizes belief—belief doesn’t matter
o      is highly individualistic
o      verges on the non-theistic
o      experiments with monism, pantheism, paganism, and dualism
·      This is a generalized, large ethos that is coming on like a tsunami and we’re on the shore
·      Outline for her talk:
o      What’s going on
§       social, intellectual, demographic changes
o      Changes within organized religion
§       “Spiritual but not Religious” movement (SBNR)
o      Strategies going forward
§       What to avoid, what to promote
o      Hope and Challenge
·      Surveys confirm a dramatic change
o      Pew Forum
o      News Week (“A Post-Christian Nation”)
o      Parade Magazine
o      every few months since 2007, there’s another survey about religion
·      Decline in religious loyalty: 6 in 10 Americans have switched religions at least once
·      A less “Protestant” America
o      In 1992, >66% was Protestant
o      In 2007, <51%
o      In 2011, even lower
·      There has been a rise in the “Unaffiliated”
o      This is the largest growth of any group
o      In 1990, 8%
o      In 2007, 16%
o      In 2011, 20-25%
o      And this is especially among millenials (among millenials it may be as high as 75%)
·      Decline in Religious Involvement
o      50% rarely or never attend services
o      22% say Religion has no place in their lives
o      24% say they are “spiritual but not religious”
·      Why is this happening?
o      Changes in social landscape
o      Changes in intellectual landscape
o      Demographic changes
·      Social Changes
o      Rise in diversity of religion and ethnicity
o      Decline in “felt” importance of religion
o      Disaffiliation and unaffiliation
§       The millenials and gen x’s are not bothered by a lack of identity (as a member of one of these groups, I would disagree with this. We’re ALWAYS talking about “finding ourselves.”)
o      More (religiously) mixed marriages
o      Less children are being raised with religion
o      Competition and the “Spiritual Marketplace”
§       America is like a spiritual mall
o      Mix of religion and politics
·      Intellectual Changes
o      Fragmentation of knowledge, information, roles, meanings, etc.
§       There is an information explosion, but it causes fragmentation
§       We have fragmented roles that keep us from having a core identity
o      There are no longer claims of a universal truth—we hide behind subjectivity
o      Humans have lost their place—we’ve lost the sense of being human beings created by God and having a special place in the universe.
o      In the midst of the chaos, each human is alone to create their own meaning.
§       Bricolage
§       Spiritual Tinkerers
·      Changes in Belief Patterns
o      Believing without Belonging?
o      Hybridity
o      Syncretism
o      Anti-rationality—reason is not to be trusted
§       In AA, they say that “your best thinking got you here,” in other words, don’t trust your own reason
§       “Leave your mind at the door.”
o      Retreat into emotive, experiential
·      Demographic Changes—Seven Key Trends
o      Delayed marriage—this means we’re waiting longer and longer for the prodigals to come back to church
o      Fewer children and later
o      uncertainties in work and money—maybe I’ll have to move, so I don’t want to make ties at this church or parish; maybe I’ll have to work on Sundays; I don’t want to join when I don’t know if I’ll have money to tithe
o      Higher Education—young people are exposed to more and more
o      Loosening Relationships—people are afraid to commit
o      Globalization—leads to spiritual tinkerers
o      Information Explosion
·      Spirituality has become a big business—look at all the different ads on tv for “spiritual” or religious groups
·      SBNR ethos is shaping American faith
o      many are less loyal
o      many within religion are increasingly attracted to the eclectic spirituality of SBNR
·      “Unchurched Spirituality is gradually reshaping the personal faith of many who belong to mainstream religious organizations.” –Robert Fuller
·      Example: one of her friends is Mennonite, but claims to find God through Buddhist meditation.
·      “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (Christian Smith at ND) is what my generation is looking for.
·      “Moralistic” to my generation means
o      act so other people will like you (Jesus didn’t do this)
o      fulfill your personal potential
o      don’t be socially disruptive (He certainly didn’t do this)
o      Don’t be interpersonally obnoxious
o      Feel good about yourself
·      “Therapeutic”
o      The goal is to feel good, happy, secure, and at peace.
o      Gain subjective well being
o      Able to solve problems.
o      get along with others
·      “Deism”—a mild form of theism
o      18 Century Deism with a twist… the distant God is selectively available for taking care of your needs.
o      God is a divine creator, lawgiver, keeps a safe distance, and is not demanding.
o      God’s job is to solve your problems, make you feel good, not get too personally involved
o      God is the divine butler and cosmic therapist.
·      Basic tenets of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD):
o      God exists, created, watches over
o      The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself and your life
o      Good people go to Heaven
o      All religions teach these things, so we don’t have to choose one.
·      What does it mean to be SBNR?
o      3rd largest group among young adults, after Roman Catholic and Baptist.
o      More among Gen Xers and Millenials (can I just say I hate these terms?)
o      Less likely to attend services of any kind
o      about 20% of Americans and 50% of unaffiliated are SBNR
o      Show little interest in church attendance and orthodox beliefs
o      Ethos prevalent in much of the industrialized west (I saw it particularly in Italy).
o      More likely to practice alternative spiritualities
o      More interest in mysticism
o      More likely to experiment with unorthodox beliefs and practices
o      Negative feelings towards clergy and churches
o      The idea that being an SBNR is a badge of honor
o      Religion is seen as a roadblock
§       Many reject claims to absolute truths
§       many believe religion demands abdication of personal liberty
§       many feel entitled to be patrons rather than subscribers… not have to have loyalties to partake
o      Trying to separate spirituality and religion
§       spiritual vs. material
§       individual vs. institutional—people don’t trust institution/authority
§       Interior vs. exterior
§       private vs. public
o      What do they believe?
§       there is something sacred—a universal energy source… no actual God, it’s an energy that you plug into and use as you like.
§       human nature—the self becomes God, the self is sacred… there is no God that is outside you.
§       community vs. freedom—not a lot of community, there is no long term relationship or commitment to community
§       life after death—balancing between feeling of eternity and individuality with a droplet going back into a pool of water… energy returning to energy
o      There’s a lot of hybridity here.
·      There is an emerging meta narrative here…
o      We are all one.
o      There is no personal God out there. Instead, he’s a universal energy source that exists but is non-conscious, non-communicative.
o      We are on par with nature
o      The self is sacred
o      You need to find your “true self”
o      Tradition stifles the individual
o      nothing left when we die, except perhaps energy
·      How different is this? She gives a long comparison to the Abrahamic traditions, but I think we all know these.
·      What are possible outcomes?
o      secularization like Europe?
o      highly individualized spiritual practices?
o      Changes in social structure?
o      More egalitarian, less community?
o      New Reformation?
o      “Leaner” more effective religions?
·      This may be the most dramatic religious, intellectual, and social change since Christendom took root in Europe.
·      Strategies that WON’T work:
o      Condemning
o      denying
o      minimizing it
o      ignoring it
·      Style vs. content
o      Some congregations won’t change their style, but will change their content.
o      Some change style but won’t change their content… won’t address contemporary needs… or, more positively, won’t give up their basic beliefs.
o      Can we change our style while still promoting our core content?
·      A generalized spirituality is inadequate to provide
o      a moral compass
o      individual and corporate responsibility
o      real human identity
o      guidance for spiritual formation
o      true moral freedom
o      lasting conversion
o      clear, guiding vision
·      Promising strategies
o      revitalizing our own faith
o      communicating our spiritual experience
o      creatively encountering SBNRs
o      Thinking theologically about our culture.
o      Becoming the alternative—the counter culture (isn’t this what the Catholic Church was originally?)
·      Possible Scenarios?
o      Organized religion as
§       counter-cultural
§       niche-oriented
§       believing and belonging
§       community and credibility
§       open minded yet confident and trusting
·      Good news…
o      this generation is seeking
o      many want to talk theology
o      searching for meaningful spiritual practices (Catechetically, this means we need stop saying, “We do this because it’s tradition” and start showing them why what we do has meaning.)
o      searching for spiritual community
o      31% of millenials list being spiritual or close to God as one of their life goals.
·      Things to avoid:
o      unclear, anemic worship
o      lack of confidence and joy
o      over organizing
o      judgment, intolerance
o      stunting enthusiasm and creativity
o      top-down leadership
o      minimizing the spiritual experience
o      separating mind and body in worship
o      squelching honest questions and doubts
o      theology disconnected from life experience
·      Things to do:
o      be hopeful
o      show vital community
o      listen, listen, listen
o      figure out what’s been missing in their lives
o      renew your own faith