The U.S is home to the most Christians in the world, but the number of Americans who identify as Christian is declining, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.
One of the most important factors in the declining share of Christians and the growth of the “nones” is generational replacement. As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations. Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33). And fewer than six-in-ten Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with seven-in-ten or more among older generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Just 16% of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11% identify with mainline Protestantism. Roughly one-in-five are evangelical Protestants.
In a NPR interview The Very Rev. Gary Hall, the retired dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., points out that to counter this decline it is time to talk about God in a grown-up way:
I’ve always felt that it’s important for religious people to have the same kind of philosophical stance they use in their religious life as they do in the rest of their life. And a lot of times I think religion — religions — ask people to sort of turn off the scientific part of their lives and just go and kind of think about God kind of pre-scientifically.I don’t think we can do that. We’ve got to have a faith that is, in some sense, consonant with the way we think about the world scientifically. And again, I think one of the things the Pew study suggests to us is that if the church can get over its anxiety about talking about God in a grown-up way, we would actually reach out to and speak to more people than we do right now.
Talking about God is a grown-up way, starts with stop defending the Bible as a history or science book. As Peter Enns writes in The Bible Tells Me So… Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It:
What makes the Bible God’s Word isn’t its uncanny historical accuracy, as some insist, but the sacred experiences these stories point to, beyond the words themselves. Watching these ancient pilgrims work through their faith, even wrestling with how they did that, models for us our own journeys of seeking to know God better and commune with Him more deeply….Both sides—the “now we know the Bible is a pack of lies” side and the “Bible has to be historically accurate to be the Word of God” side—are wrong because they start from the same wrongheaded premise: any book worthy of being called “scripture” has to if anything, get history “right.”The passionate defense of the Bible as a “history book” among the more conservative wings of Christianity, despite intentions, isn’t really an act of submission to God; it is making God submit to us.
Most religion in the world doesn’t have theology. Theology is something very peculiar to Christianity. It didn’t even come from Jesus. It was an accident. The Greek world was heavily philosophical at the time Christianity was developing, and so the Christians adopted all this jargon from Greek philosophy and incorporated it into their religion; that became theology. I’ve never found it essential to my religion or to other religions. Judaism has practically no theology, and Islam has very little – Buddhism, even less.
The medieval philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides insisted and we agree that conflicts between science and the Bible arise from either a lack of scientific knowledge or a defective understanding of the Bible. Many great scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, George Washington Carver, Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday and Louis Pasteur were deeply religious men.
In the Sixteenth Century, mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus formulated a heliocentric model, that is a model that placed the Sun rather than the Earth at the center, of the universe. In 1616, the Inquisition declared heliocentrism to be formally heretical.
MIT-trained physicist and former member of United States Atomic Energy Commission Gerald Schroeder:
What does the position of the Earth have to do with belief in a creator of the universe or the validity of the Bible? Nowhere does the Bible claim that Earth is central to anything. In fact, the very first sentence of the Bible we read — ” … God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The heavens precede the Earth. As scientific data demonstrating the Sun’s centrality accumulated, the Church was forced into embarrassed retreat. So today, the popular perception is that science had proven the Bible wrong. In reality, the claim of Earth’s centrality had nothing to do with the Bible.Similarly, Kepler’s discovery of the elliptical orbit of the planets did not sit well with the religious establishment. Circles were perfect geometric shapes, ellipses are defective. An infinitely powerful God would be expected to produce perfect orbits. Of course, the Bible doesn’t teach that a circle is better than an ellipse! Yet the Church condemned Kepler’s discovery.
Nikola Tesla’s father was an Orthodox priest and in his autobiography, Nikola wrote:
The gift of mental power comes from God, Divine Being, and if we concentrate our minds on that truth, we become in tune with this great power. My Mother had taught me to seek all truth in the Bible; therefore I devoted the next few months to the study of this work.
Tesla gives full credit to God for his ability to discover some amazing new ideas in the Bible. Microwave comes from the fourth chapter of Revelations. His idea of the alternating current comes from the book of Matthew. In other words from the Trinity. Again from his autobiography:
At this time I made a further careful study of the Bible, and discovered the key in Revelation. The first gratifying result was obtained in the spring of the succeeding year, when I reaching a tension of about 100,000,000 volts—one hundred million volts — with my conical coil, which I figured was the voltage of a flash of lightening.
[D]espite living in the most modernized and technologically advanced country, Americans report one of the world’s highest levels of belief in God. Americans’ faith in God appears constant even as we have come to embrace twenty-first-century technology and the benefits of modern science….While Americans tend to be religiously devout, we paradoxically tend to know very little about religion, our own or others’. Religion scholar Stephen Prothero has shown that America is composed of “Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses.” Religious illiteracy increases the odds of misunderstanding and conflict….[T]he simple fact that nearly 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God undermines any notion that we are engaged in a holy war over the existence of God.We might, however, be in a war over who God is….Knowing a person’s image of God, therefore, provides us with an opportunity to understand the most intimate moral and introspective conversations they have. Simply put, our picture of God is worth a thousand queries into the substance of our moral and philosophical beliefs…Our image of God is never simply a reflection of the beliefs of our religious community. The traditional method of classifying people as Catholics or Baptists or Jews tells us little of consequence about what they believe.~ American’s Four Gods
By Paul Froese
& Christopher Bader
George Washington Carver is known for saying, “Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God… I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”
We need a theology of abundance to deal with the outcomes of our technology, the massive fruitfulness that the Creator God baked into us. We need a theology of abundance equal to the grace and generosity found in the blood of Jesus poured out for many. We need a theology of abundance commensurate with the superabundant presence of the Holy Spirit that can flood our senses, short-circuit our rationale. Unfortunately, our economics is built on a model of scarcity, and our theology feels equally impoverished.
Isaac Newton was, as considered by others within his own lifetime, an insightful and erudite theologian, but he was foremost an alchemist. He wrote over a million words on alchemy and his laws of light and theory of gravity came from his alchemical work. After purchasing and studying Newton’s alchemical works in 1942, economist John Maynard Keyes opined that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.”
In 1959, a survey was taken of leading American scientists. Among the many questions asked was, “What is your estimate of the age of the universe?” The response to that survey was recently republished in Scientific American – the most widely read science journal in the world. Two-thirds of the scientists gave the same answer. The answer that two-thirds – an overwhelming majority – of the scientists gave was, “Beginning? There was no beginning. Aristotle and Plato taught us 2400 years ago that the universe is eternal. Oh, we know the Bible says ‘In the beginning.’ That’s a nice story; it helps kids go to bed at night. But we sophisticates know better. There was no beginning.”
That was 1959. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the echo of the Big Bang in the black of the sky at night, and the world paradigm changed from a universe that was eternal to a universe that had a beginning. Science had made an enormous paradigm change in its understanding of the world. Understand the impact. Science said that our universe had a beginning. I can’t overestimate the import of that scientific “discovery.” Evolution, cave men, these are all trivial problems compared to the fact that we now understand that we had a beginning. Exactly as the Bible had claimed for three millennia. ~ Gerald Schroeder
The Science Delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in. This is a very widespread belief in our society. It’s the kind of belief system of people who say “I don’t believe in God, I believe in science.” It’s a belief system which has now been spread to the entire world. But there is a conflict in the heart of science between science as a method of inquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis, and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or a worldview. And unfortunately the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and restrict the free inquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavor.
Since the late 19th, science has been conducted under the aspect of a belief system or worldview which is essentially that of materialism, philosophical materialism. And the sciences are now wholly-owned subsidiaries of the materialist worldview. And I think as we break out of it, the sciences will be regenerated. ~ Rupert Sheldrake
The good news of the gospel, as John understands it, is not that you–a wretched, miserable, fallen sinner–have been rescued from your fate and saved from your deserved punishment by the invasive power of a supernatural, heroic God who came to your aid. Nowhere does John give credibility to the dreadful, guilt-producing and guilt-filled mantra that “Jesus died for my sins.” There is rather an incredible new insight into the meaning of life. We are not fallen; we are simply incomplete. We do not need to be rescued, but to experience the power of an all-embracing love. Our call is not to be forgiven or even to be redeemed; it is to step beyond our limits into a new understanding of what it means to be human. It is to move from a status of self-consciousness to a realization that we share in a universal consciousness. John’s rendition of Jesus’ message is that the essence of life is discovered when one is free to give life away, that love is known in the act of loving and that the call of human life is to be all that each of us can be and then to be an agent of empowering other to be all they can be.
John Shelby Sprong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark for twenty-four years. Since then he has taught at Harvard, Drew, The University of the Pacific, and the Berkeley Graduate Theological Union. Selling over a million copies, his books include Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, Eternal Life: A New Vision, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die. He lives with his wife, Christine, in Morris Plains, New Jersey.
In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong explains, if I’m asked if I have “faith in Christ”, the question is whether I agree with the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead, or some form of that story. In both cases, questions of “belief” and questions of “faith” require answers of thought.
Yet, as surprising as it may seem, these understandings are relatively recent. “Faith” has its etymological roots in the Greek pistis, “trust; commitment; loyalty; engagement.” Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and loyal commitment to God. Belief in Christ was an engaged commitment to the call and ministry of Jesus; it was a commitment to do the gospel, to be a follower of Christ. In neither case were “belief” or “faith” a matter of intellectual assent.