That ‘What, me worry?’ semi-faith story

I realize that many news consumers are not fond of the emerging tradition in many mainstream newsrooms of running pushy, perhaps even provocative news features during major religious holiday seasons — especially stories during Christmas and Easter.

It helps to understand that many of these same news organizations used to serve up rather dim, shallow, allegedly “inspirational” stories that readers were supposed to see as sort-of religious (but not really) tributes to the season in question. ‘Round about Dec. 20th, reporters would hear frantic, exhausted editors saying things like, “Will someone in this &*^%#%^ newsroom please find me some kind of *&^# %$@^%& *%$#$ Christmas story with big color art for page one? $^%@! You all know that we have to have one.”

Needless to say, many of those stories were rather lame.

These days, the goal seems to be to find some kind of religion story that tweaks the faithful, rather than one that condescends to them. I see this as progress, frankly, when the results are truly newsworthy.

This brings me to the latest USA Today news feature by Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman that focuses on life in America’s post-denominational and increasingly post-doctrinal age.

Yes, I have heard from some GetReligion readers who who see this story as another MSM attempt to dance on the grave of small-o orthodoxy. However, I don’t see this story that way.

Why? Let’s look at the recent story that ran under the headline, “For many, ‘Losing My Religion’ isn’t just a song: It’s life.” The story focus on the growing slice of the population that neither believes or rejects belief. These folks just shrug and say, “So what?” Here’s a crucial chunk of Grossman’s story:

As Christmas Day glides by — all gilt, no substance — for many, clergy and religion experts are dismayed. They fear for souls’ salvation and for the common threads of faith snapping in society. Others see no such dire consequences to a more openly secular America as people not only fess up to being faithless but admit they’re skipping out on spiritual, the cool default word of the decade, as well.

Only now, however, are they turning up in the statistical stream. Researchers have begun asking the kind of nuanced questions that reveal just how big the So What set might be:

• 44% told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom,” and 19% said “it’s useless to search for meaning.”

• 46% told a 2011 survey by Nashville-based evangelical research agency, LifeWay Research, they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.

• 28% told LifeWay “it’s not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose.” And 18% scoffed that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.

• 6.3% of Americans turned up on Pew Forum’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Hemant Mehta, who blogs as The Friendly Atheist, calls them the “apatheists”

First of all, note the sources of these gloomy statistics. Grossman is drawing, primarily, on research done by conservative Protestants and organizations that are seen as dedicated to fair, informed research. No one is dancing on any graves, here. In fact, you can argue that the Southern Baptists, in particular, are sounding these statistical alarms in order to awaken the faithful, not to insult them.

This is similar to those headline-grabbing polls conducted in the past decade or so by the evangelical researchers at the Barna Group that determined — according to their doctrinal standards — that only 9 percent of American adults are attempting to live according to a “biblical worldview.” Is it anti-religion when candid believers conduct this kind of research?

Come to think of it, are scholars linked to the oldline Protestant churches doing similar research? If anything, this USA Today report has too many conservative voices and not enough info from the religious left.

The bottom line, however, is clear: This story has legs. And it is linked to another major trend that cannot be ignored:

The hot religion statistical trend of recent decades was the rise of the “Nones” — the people who checked “no religious identity” on the American Religious Identification Surveys (ARIS). The Nones numbers leapt from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008.

The So Whats appear to be a growing secular subset. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s Landscape Survey dug in to the Nones to discover that nearly half said they believed “nothing in particular.”

However, this USA Today report did leave me asking some questions. Here are a few of them.

* How does this “So what” trend relate to the phenomenon that Jewish sociologists have been studying for years, the one that I first read about in the early ’80s in a Jewish studies class at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign? The trend has become known as “Fewer Jews, but better Jews.” In other words, as more believers drift away there is a corresponding change in the shape of the religious community. There are fewer believers, but a higher percentage than before are believers who are trying to practice traditional forms of their faith.

* If rising numbers of people are unconcerned about religious life and doctrine, how does this trend affect religious groups that are not as strict or orthodox? Are liberal movements growing or shrinking, especially in comparison to trends in more conservative forms of the faith? Even inside one branch of the church — such as Roman Catholicism — are liberal parishes thriving, opening schools and producing priests? How do their statistics compare to parishes that strive to defend church traditions?

* What replaces these traditions, when they are thrown aside? How do the “So what” Americans mark their marriages, births, deaths and other symbolic movements? I was struck by this piece of the Grossman report:

The Rev. Ema Drouillard, who specializes in San Francisco-area non-denominational ceremonies, said in 2001 about 30% of her clients refused any reference to religion at their weddings. A decade later, 80% of her clients choose her carefully God-free ceremony. The only faith they pledge is in each other. No higher authority is consulted as they vow to walk beside each other, “offering courage and hope through all your endeavors.”

“A lot of people just aren’t on any spiritual path. They say, ‘We are just focusing on the party.’ Or they have no language for their spirituality so they just leave it out,” Drouillard says.

Interesting. By the way, this minister is ordained. Who ordained her? Who is supporting these lite rites?

* On a related question, what do we know about the ages and lifestyles of these “So what” semi-believers? Is this a stance that works better for single adults who are cohabiting, as opposed to married couples with multiple children?

* During a visit to the Czech Republic a few years ago, I heard journalist after journalist discussing two interesting trends. The first has received plenty of ink, which is the fact that this nation is one of the most secular on earth. The second trend, however, can be seen as the second piece of a paradox. The Czech Republic has also become one of the world’s most superstitious nations, with millions of unbelievers who, in effect, turn to superstitions to replace the mysteries that once were defined by organized forms of faith.

What would this look like in an American context? Perhaps this trend could be linked to all of those atheists who, according to researchers, continue to pray?

Lots of questions. Yes, but these questions are based on the assumption that this is an important story.

More coverage, please.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://Faith&Reason Cathy Grossman

    I, too, would like to see some demographic cross-tabs that would give “faces” to the So What set but drawing stats from several different research groups made that too convoluted for this story. But keep an eye out. I think some savvy pollster will pull several of these nuanced questions onto one survey and we’ll get a better fix on the demographics.

  • Jerry

    This area is one that I thought should have been in the religious top 10 list for 2011 so obviously I’m happy you chose to look at it here. So I say “amen” to your request for more coverage.

  • Mike

    Very good thoughts. And helpful. David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church (Baker) is the type of “faithful insider” research you quote, from the angle of the younger “so what?’s.”

    Leadership Journal just named it a top book of the year, and I am finding it helpful in sorting out a couple of the questions you pose, though the focus is on those who leave the institutional church, including those who have not abandoned “spirituality” or “faith” altogether.

    Thanks for the post. Very helpful.

  • carl

    So this is a story that more or less reports on the religious attitudes prevalent in journalism. I wonder if that aspect shouldn’t be brought out somewhere.

    Another aspect that should be investigated is the connection between spiritual apathy and money. It’s easy to “focus on the party” when you have money to attend the party. What happens to this group in the absence of wealth?

    A third aspect is the connection between spiritual apathy and the collapse of knowable Truth. If people no longer believe in Truth, then what forms for them the basis of conduct? How do they know right from wrong, good from evil?

    There are all sorts of implications to these ideas, and btw they are playing out in Europe right now. Not the least of which is catastrophically low birth rates. There is much to investigate here.


  • Just visiting

    “Catastrophically low birth rates” aren’t closely connected to a lack of religious observance. If anything, the tendency is to the contrary: over the past three decades, traditionally highly religious and conservative countries like Spain, Italy, and Poland have seen fertility crash, while relatively irreligious countries like France, the United Kingdom, and the Nordic countries have seen fertility rise notably (and no, immigration plays only a secondary role). In the Communist bloc, the Czech Republic and Estonia–like the rest of the Soviet bloc–did see fertility crash during the 1990s and have since seen fertility partially recover. The fact that these two countries are among the most irreligious in post-Communist Europe by itself certainly doesn’t imply causation.

  • tioedong

    the Barna group’s definition of living a “Biblical Lifestyle” would exclude me, because I’m a Catholic.

    The emphasis on “faith alone” and using the “bible” (presumably a verse out of context that ignores other verses that contradict the first verse) instead of natural law to guide morality are two things that would disqualify me.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    First, I don’t see this as a hit piece on religion or religious people. The headline is a bit hipster for me, but that’s probably not Ms. Grossman’s doing anyway.

    That said, my response to the article was the same as my response to most trend articles: so what else is new? Ok, fewer people are going to church in a pretense of belief, and more are open about non-believing. But most of the comments I read are no surprise, since I’ve heard them before. Shallow complacency is precisely the effect I would expect in a society that has been prosperous for 60 years now.

    I do think it was an interesting choice to end the article with this:

    “I try to live my life and do the best I can. I figure if I do good, good things will happen. I’m not at all worried about the afterlife. How could they turn me down when people do whatever they want during the week. They go to church all the time then they come home and they gamble, they party, they use God’s name in vain.

    Ah! The old “the church is full of hypocrites” line. Heard that one all my life, too. So perhaps it’s not just living comfortably without faith: us Church folk don’t meet standards, although the unbeliever is just the paragon of virtue. Serious questions should be asked: how do these folks measure “being good”? How do they measure their virtue, apart, of course, from their self-evident goodness and self-satisfaction? Could we get some hard numbers?

    So let me be really snotty for a minute: how much do these paragons give to charity? How many hours of volunteer hours do they log? My town has homeless shelters run by the Presbyterians, a pentecostal group, and the Salvation Army. Fifty years ago (before medicine became a profit-making business), the hospitals were founded and run by Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists. There was also a county hospital, founded by a church-going man.

    Hypocrites all, no doubt. They probably even gambled!

  • Julia

    I’m fascinating by the changing meanings in “secular” which used to mean not connected to religion v no religion.

    Examples: public school v a religion-connected school
    George Washington’s birthday v Christmas
    America’s Democrat party v Europe’s Christian Democrats

    Today “secular” seems to imply non-belief in religion rather than not in the ambit of religion. The US seems to be adopting the European sense of the word. How and when did that happen?

  • Julia

    The Biblical Worldview eliminates all Catholics and some other Christian groups as well. I’m not atheist or agnostic or unChuched.
    Where do people like Tioedong and me fit in the statistics?

  • tmatt

    I have spiked a bunch of comments arguing about the Barna survey.

    The Barna numbers are simply part of an emerging quilt of data. Different polls reveal different things about different people.

    Other than Sola Scriptura, the Barna poll isn’t that hostile to ancient churches. Meanwhile, Gallup has, in the past found a number for practicing believers that is NOT that much higher — numbers in the 10 to 12 percent range.

    And Catholics? The key is the percentage who go to Confession once a year or who EVER go. The numbers there are really scary too.

    The number of Jews who go to temple or synagogue once a week? Trust me, you don’t want to know.

    It’s all part of the same picture. Grossman’s story is one step inside the door.

    Also, I was sincere when I asked if there is liberal Prot research on these questions. Those churches are in demographic free fall. How are they being affected by this trend?

  • Julia

    It’s not that the survey is hostile, it’s that it totally disregards a huge number of Christians. Maybe that’s what was intended?

    The questions on which Grossman reported are actually more interesting than how many times does somebody go to church or confession. Many people are just going through the motions. The term “apatheist” is a very useful one to know.

  • sari

    The story will be relevant only when it encompasses all Americans, whatever their background, and when it explores whether behaviors and beliefs are retained even as professed/practiced faith recedes. For instance, several generations of unaffiliated, unobservant Jews maintained the cultural emphasis on learning, even though the emphasis shifted from religious to secular texts. In traditional Judaism, study of sacred texts is considered a form of worship; scholars were revered and respected. The emphasis on learning is waning. Will the strong cultural emphasis on justice wane as well?

    Likewise, studies need to look at how “apatheists” regulate their behavior in the absence of religious belief, what cultural artifacts remain, -and- whether this is a permanent trend or one reminiscent of the sixties, when the pendulum swung back to religion in subsequent decades.

    Lastly, attendance and, in particular, charitable contributions to religious institutions seem to be waning everywhere. What role does the current economic climate play? Is the exodus about lack of faith or money?

  • Dave

    If rising numbers of people are unconcerned about religious life and doctrine, how does this trend affect religious groups that are not as strict or orthodox? Are liberal movements growing or shrinking, especially in comparison to trends in more conservative forms of the faith?

    I can tell you that Unitarian Universalism is not growing nearly as fast as some UUs think it logically should in such circumstances. I don’t have precise figures but it’s a little better than flat and a little worse than treading water as a percentage of overall population. Our current Association President ran on a theme of “How can we repel fewer visitors?”

  • carl

    Also, I was sincere when I asked if there is liberal Prot research on these questions. Those churches are in demographic free fall. How are they being affected by this trend?

    This whole trend reflects the presupposition that capital-T Truth is unknowable. Modern man begins with the assumption that knowledge of truth originates within himself. He then confronts the reality that his status as a limited finite creature precludes any authoritative pronouncements. He tried to adapt the scientific method as the means of knowing Truth. But science can’t answer questions about good and evil, right and wrong, meaning and purpose. Couple that with an evolutionary mindset that says life is a random event devoid of divine imperative, and you have the foundation of our current culture. Men now say “There are no answers. I think I will have a drink.”

    Liberal religion responds “So maybe there aren’t any answers. Let’s celebrate the questions!” A few intellectuals will respond with “Hey, cool.” But most people will turn back to the bar. That’s why liberal religion declines in a liberal culture. It has no meaningful message. It doesn’t offer people any reason to adopt any kind of religious foundation for their life. It’s only real purpose is as a counter-weight to more conservative forms. Most liberals think liberal religion is a nice safe alternative for people who ‘need that sort of thing.’ As conservative forms of religion decline, liberal religion loses its purpose, and becomes a shadow of which no one takes notice.

    Theology Matters. Even secularists have a form of “theology”, and what we see in this growth of apathy is the fruit of that worldview. A materialist culture must inevitably see itself in evolutionary instead of created terms. The idea that man is a random event liberates man from moral norms of conduct. He becomes radically free. He also becomes radically pointless. In such a condition, man isn’t going to seek out a religion that emphasizes that pointlessness. He is going to go back and search for meaning, or he is going to try to find a way to narcotize his irrelvance. The niche that liberal religion hopes to occupy is the one place he would find intolerable.


  • Julia


    This is where Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith comes in.

    Kind of like Pascal’s Wager.

  • sari

    carl, you make a number of assertions which sound more like opinions than verifiable fact. How are your statements relevant to journalism, particularly in the area of religion? I really don’t see the connection.

  • carl jacobs


    I was addressing this question by tmatt at post 10.

    How are they being affected by this trend?

    If he hadn’t asked the question, I probably wouldn’t have made the post.


  • Ron Sellers

    So who is the Rev. Ema Drouillard, as the article asks? Out of curiosity, I looked her up. In her own words:

    “Rev. Ema Drouillard, WM Certified Officiant
    Ordained in 1976
    Doctor of Philosophy in Religion 1998
    Assistant Chaplain Good Hospital in Santa Clara.
    Lay Eucharist Minister Episcopalian Church of St. John’s.
    Benedictine Camaldolese Oblate New Camaldoli Hermitage.

    My spiritual curiosity drove me to visit every church in my hometown beginning near the age of twelve. My great grandfather was a pastor for 50 years with the First Congregational Church; he married my parents and christened me. My father was a Baptist and later baptized me via immersion.

    My life long quest in spirituality led me to the mystics and devotional prayer in all traditions. I studied and received in-depth spiritual direction that I now offer to those I do ceremony for. Finally with the understanding of mythology my awareness became integrated into a daily lifestyle which I find enriching. My service to others is grounded in the integrity of my own spiritual life.”

    Not surprising that many of the people who would gravitate toward a person with apparently no actual firm religious beliefs or orthodoxy, who actively advertises that she’ll pretty much do any type of wedding ceremony: spiritual, religious, secular, etc., want no actual religious content in their ceremony. What surprises me is that she would report so many people wanting religious content in her past. Because this is anecdotal evidence, I’m sure a lot also depends on where she advertises her services, who she targets, etc.