Nones

What happens when a travel story about spiritual spaces in Los Angeles goes wrong?

What happens when a travel story about spiritual spaces in Los Angeles goes wrong?

Well, it seemed like a delightful story. 

A New York Times freelancer decided to visit contemplative sites and institutions in greater Los Angeles and make a travel story out of it.

I was in LA for few days in January. And after experiencing the region’s numbing traffic several days in a row, I hid out at a friend’s home in a gated community in Buena Park. I was thanking God that I had never gotten a job in this region. I thought commuting in DC was rough. This was the Beltway on steroids.

But this writer gave a positive spin to all the craziness. Thus, we follow him as he explores what Los Angelenos do to escape the maddening crowd.

The key: Finding vaguely spiritual sites that help people calm down and deal with stress. But are all "spiritual" places created equal? Are some "spiritual" activities linked to, you know, religion?

This meditative mind-set was fitting for my 3 p.m. appointment, which I was now 45 minutes late to. I was supposed to be visiting the Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens as part of a larger quest to seek out spaces of refuge and retreat across the city’s endless suburban sprawl. I wanted to find the quiet, contemplative Los Angeles, the hidden pockets of reverence, reflection, silence; places Angelenos repair to in order to recharge their batteries so that they are ready to face another day, another traffic jam, another screaming child, another vindictive boss. A city is not necessarily defined by its landmarks or its flashiest moments but by all the subtle ways its citizens forge the necessary solitude that allows them to live in proximity to their neighbors. ...

He showed me how to walk the labyrinth, a circular pathway of travertine marble. Have you ever walked a labyrinth? Labyrinths, unlike mazes, are unicursal -- they have only one way in and one way out. Each step becomes a purposeful movement. They are an ancient form of meditation; this one is based on the labyrinth at the Chartres Cathedral in France, built in the early 13th century. As you walk, the city becomes a distant dream, a movie half-remembered. In a way, it is bit like the festina lente of Interstate 10, but without the cars, the smog, the man in the neon-yellow Dodge Charger listening to Whitesnake’s “Here I go Again” at peak volume. One way in, one way out.

The writer introduces the reader to the concept of shinrin-yoku, which is immersing oneself in greenery, as in a forest. Stay with me for the next lengthy passage:


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New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?

New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?

Here's something that I didn't know before I read the rather ambitious New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "Americans Are Having Fewer Babies. They Told Us Why."

Apparently, if you ask young Americans why they are not choosing to have babies -- even the number of babies that they say they would like to have -- you get lots of answers about economics and trends in what could be called "secular" culture.

That's that. Religion plays no role in this question at all.

For example: In a graphic that ran with the piece, here are the most common answers cited, listed from the highest percentages to lowest. That would be, "Want leisure time," "Haven't found partner," "Can't afford child care," "No desire for children," "Can't afford a house," "Not sure I'd be a good parent," “Worried about the economy," "Worried about global instability," "Career is a greater priority," "Work too much," "Worried about population growth," "Too much student debt," etc., etc. Climate change is near the bottom.

You can see similar answers in the chart describing why gender-neutral young adults are choosing to have fewer children than "their ideal number."

Now, what happens if you ask people why they ARE choosing to have children? If the question is turned upside down, do issues of faith and religion show up?

It's impossible to know, since it appears that -- for the Times team and the Morning Consult pollsters -- religious questions have nothing to do with the topic of sex, marriage (or not) and fertility. Hold that thought, because we'll come back to it.

So what do Times readers find out about the reasons people give to have more children, even more than one or two? While it appears that no questions were asked about this issue, it's clear some assumptions were built into this story. This summary is long, but essential. Read carefully:

“We want to invest more in each child to give them the best opportunities to compete in an increasingly unequal environment,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies families and has written about fertility. At the same time, he said, “There is no getting around the fact that the relationship between gender equality and fertility is very strong: There are no high-fertility countries that are gender equal.”


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Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

The Religion News Service column “Flunking Sainthood,” as the title indicates, expresses the outlook of liberal Latter-day Saints. But author Jana Riess, who comes armed with a Columbia University doctorate in U.S. religious history, is also interesting when writing about broader matters.

Her latest opus contends that two standard theories about big trends in American religion are too simple and therefore misleading. Her focus is the rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” to constitute 39 percent of “millennials” from ages 18 to 29. The Religion Guy more or less agrees with her points but adds certain elements to the argument.

So, theory No. 1: Though Riess doesn’t note this, this concept was pretty much the creation of the inimitable Dean M. Kelley (1927–1997) in “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” This 1972 book was electrifying because Kelley was a “mainline” United Methodist and prominent executive with the certifiably liberal National Council of Churches. (His expertise on religious liberty gave the NCC of that era a major role on such issues.) 

Under this “strict churches” theory, religious bodies that expect strong commitments on doctrine and lifestyle from their adherents will prosper because this shows they take their faith seriously, and  they carefully tend to individual members’ spiritual needs. By contrast, losses characterize more latitudinarian (Don’t you love that word?) denominations such as those that dominated in the NCC.

Kelley’s scenario proved keenly prescient, since white “mainline” and liberal Protestant groups were then just beginning decades of unprecedented and inexorable declines in active membership and over-all vitality. The Episcopal Church, for one example, reported 3,217,365 members in 1971 compared with 1,951,907 as of 2010. So much for left-wing Bishop Jack Spong’s 1999 book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Statistics have been even more devastating with groups like the United Church of Christ and the Church of Christ (Disciples).

Now comes Riess to announce that scenario is “crumbling” because some strict conservative groups like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have also begun declining in recent years while others, e.g. her own Latter-day Saints (LDS) or Mormon Church, still grow but at more sluggish rates.

That’s accurate, important, and yes it tells us factors other than strictness are at play.

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That old Freudian question remains relevant: Why hasn't religion died, already?

That old Freudian question remains relevant: Why hasn't religion died, already?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Was Freud correct or not in his anticipation of the demise of religion in “The Future of an Illusion”?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Ah, 1927, the year of Lindbergh, “The Jazz Singer,” Mount Rushmore, Sacco and Vanzetti, Dempsey and Tunney, the Yankees and Murderers’ Row, CBS Radio and the BBC. And the year of British philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell’s booklet “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

By coincidence, that same year Sigmund Freud applied his psychoanalytic theories to religion in “The Future of an Illusion.” Arguably, these were the 20th Century’s most influential atheistic books.

To over-simplify (which is what we journalists do), Freud (1856–1939) thought that belief in God arises from a neurotic childhood longing for a father-figure. Yes, religion provided certain comforts to our primitive ancestors. But that was wishful thinking. People in the age of modern science now have the ability to test and reject imaginative fantasies, embrace reality, and as a result become more psychologically healthy and mature.

Yet religion in fact hasn’t died out and it looks like it never will, to judge from all the evidence in the nine decades that followed Freud’s book. Contra his deathly forecast, religion survived and in many places has thrived. This is especially remarkable because the past century brought unprecedented political power exercised by atheists, which resulted in the most bloodthirsty effort in history to exterminate religious faith -- and many religious believers as well. Meanwhile, in free nations  public expressions of hostility toward traditional faith have never been so unimpeded.

Followers of Freud can correctly point out that since World War II Christianity has gradually slumped into widespread desuetude across western Europe, especially in urban centers. Yet sectors of vitality persist. The most notable are among immigrants from Africa and Asia, both Muslims and Christians.

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Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Newsworthy poll numbers from ABC News and The Washington Post, which combine 5,017 interviewees during 2017, say self-identified “evangelical or born again” white Protestants have slumped to a mere 13 percent of U.S. adults. That compares with 21 percent for “nones” who lack any religious affiliation.

Americans With No Religion Greatly Outnumber White Evangelicals,” New York magazine’s headline proclaimed. If so, that would be political dynamite due to evangelicals’ importance for the Republican coalition and Democrats’ growing dependence on “nones.”

Now, let's be skeptical for a moment -- like journalists. 

Mysteriously, 13 percent is well below counts in other recent polls, so journos ought to dig into whose numbers are best and why.

The 21 percent for “nones” closely tracks other surveys. However, two experts would argue that the “With No Religion” claim in the hed above is misleading. They are Todd Johnson and assistant Gina Zurlo who lead the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Zurlo is also a researcher with Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.

In the 2016 academic compendium “Sociology of Atheism,” Zurlo and Johnson spent 24 pages analyzing “nones.” One main point was that in the U.S., at least, those who list no affiliation or call their religious identification “nothing in particular” often hold to beliefs or practices -- only minus membership. They include “spiritual but not religious” seekers and young free-floating evangelicals who shun institutional commitments.

The key: This article distinguishes between the unaffiliated and fully non-religious atheists and agnostics. It also explains pitfalls in overseas polling.

Johnson, Zurlo, and other CSGC colleagues are a go-to source for religious statistics that are used in standard reference works, and for interpretation of them. Their regularly updated World Christian Database, newly spiffed up this year, exploits every imaginable source for past, present and future numbers for each religious and ethnic group in 234 nations and territories, alongside ample backgrounding.

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Politicos and reporters: Democrats’ hopes for 2018 and '20 face religious tripwires

Politicos and reporters: Democrats’ hopes for 2018 and '20 face religious tripwires

The biblical preacher laments that “much study is a weariness of the flesh,” which can be said about commentaries without end on why oh why so many white evangelicals back President Donald Trump and his Republicans.

Current examples come from the scornful Slate.com and, on the right, David French, with vigorous National Review jeremiads here and also here. A prominent Catholic journalist, Newsweek veteran Kenneth Woodward, offered his perspective here.

Yet The Religion Guy, and other GetReligionistas, keep reminding everybody not to neglect other religious and racial groups and the dynamics within America’s other party. The Democrats have high hopes for 2020 and for a Nov. 6 rebound, perhaps of historic proportions.  Before pols order the champagne, however, they (and reporters who cover them) should recognize potential religious tripwires.

There’s a disjuncture between liberal whites who pretty much control Democratic machinations and the African-American and Hispanic voters they need in order to win. As GetReligion has noted, Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter warns about contempt for traditional Christianity typified by that New Yorker attack upon “creepy” Chick-fil-A, analyzed here by our own tmatt.

Carter, an African-American and Episcopalian, has bemoaned elite blinders  since “The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion” (1993). In this round, he highlights Pew Research data showing Americans of color are notably more devout, more religiously active and more conservative in belief than whites. His bottom line: “If you find Christian traditionalism creepy, it’s black people you’re talking about.”

The Guy adds that you’re also targeting scads of white Catholics and Latinos.   

As The Guy and other GetReligionistas keep noting, and many media keep ignoring, the Democrats’ religion problem shapes their prospects. Which brings us to “The Democrats’ God Gap,” a must-read by the aforementioned French. (French is a prominent #NeverTrump conservative but also a behind-scenes evangelical hero as an attorney defending the right of campus groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to be led by like-minded Christians.)    

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Generic God brings 'miracle' boy to life, after medical authorities called him a goner

Generic God brings 'miracle' boy to life, after medical authorities called him a goner

Doctors were ready to pull the plug.

The 13-year-old Alabama boy's parents had already signed a set of organ-donation papers. They braced themselves for the worst.

Then something happened that the medical team could not explain, the kind of thing that parents -- yes -- pray for in these circumstances.

As it turned out, the medical experts didn't know everything. For some unknown reason, this boy's brain woke up. Here is the top of the USA Today report:

Jennifer Nicole Reindl has a simple explanation for her young son's recovery from the brink of death due to severe brain injuries.

"It's a miracle," Reindl tells USA TODAY, citing her belief that the hand of God is behind it all.

As you can see, this story is going to have a religion angle -- a strong one. The problem is that there is zero evidence in this story -- which combined aggregation with new reporting -- that reporters or editors asked a single question about the details of this family's faith.

This is, as your GetReligionistas call it, a "generic" God story. Let's continue reading:

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Francis Effect? Gallup offers sobering Pope Francis-era numbers about Mass attendance

Francis Effect? Gallup offers sobering Pope Francis-era numbers about Mass attendance

Warning: The following commentary is about journalism, as opposed to the policies and theology of Pope Francis. Understood? Now, let's proceed.

Does anyone remember the "Francis Effect"?

That was the term -- quickly embraced as gospel by journalists around the world -- used to describe the wave of fresh air and new life that was expected to sweep through Catholicism as a result of the dawn of the Francis papacy in 2013. His humility and merciful stance on doctrine was going to bring Catholics back to the pews, especially the young, after decades of bookish legalism under St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Now, do you think it would be big news in the mainstream press if the Gallup poll pros produced new numbers that showed that this had, in fact, come to pass?

#DUH, and validly so.

Now, with that in mind, let's look at the top of this new report from Gallup:

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Weekly church attendance has declined among U.S. Catholics in the past decade, while it has remained steady among Protestants.
From 2014 to 2017, an average of 39% of Catholics reported attending church in the past seven days. This is down from an average of 45% from 2005 to 2008 and represents a steep decline from 75% in 1955.
By contrast, the 45% of Protestants who reported attending church weekly from 2014 to 2017 is essentially unchanged from a decade ago and is largely consistent with the long-term trend.

OK, this brings us into familiar territory, especially for the millions of readers who have read the thousands of news reports about the rising numbers, especially among the young, of religiously unaffiliated Americans -- or "Nones."

What interests me is what has not happened among Catholics post-2013.

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Stats on future of faith in Europe: What happens when Christendom's heart weakens?

Stats on future of faith in Europe: What happens when Christendom's heart weakens?

The original saying, I think, was this: "When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold (or words to that effect)." The meaning is pretty obvious.

Then people started spinning off variations. One of the most common is this: "When America sneezes, the world catches cold." In this case, we're talking about American economic clout, but there are many variations -- as this nice NPR feature explains.

But I'm convinced the true cultural equation is this one: "When Europe sneezes, America catches the cold." The whole idea is that Europe tends to be several decades ahead of America, when it comes major trends in arts, culture, etc."

Now what about religion? That's basically what we talked about in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Well, for decades now, demographers have known that the active practice of religious faith was fading in most (not all) of Europe. Once again, France has been one of the easiest places to see this trend. However, in the past decade or so -- Hello, Church of England -- it's been easy to see the same struggles in other pews.

Now, several years ago here in America, we had a hurricane if ink and newsprint when the Pew Forum released its famous "Nones on the Rise" study, showing a sharp increase in the number of "religiously unaffiliated" Americans, especially among the young. The term "Nones" has been all over the place, ever since (including here at GetReligion).

Why? Well, for starters there were big political overtones. This paragraph from one of my "On Religion" columns pretty much sums that up:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters. ... The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

In other words, a coalition of atheists, agnostics and "Nones" is now to the Democratic Party what the Religious Right (broadly defined) is to the Republican party -- the grassroots heart.

So here is the question that host Todd Wilken and I talked about this week: If the "Nones" study has received acres of headlines, why has there been so little American coverage of that stunning new Benedict XVI Centre study entitled "Europe's Young Adults and Religion"? 

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