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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