Religion has given itself such a bad name that even some believers don't want to be associated with it. "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual," is something that's usually said by people who believe in god but don't want to be included in his army of uptight, church-going, dogmatic, judgmental, hypocritical, unreasonable, irrational, bullying followers bent on overthrowing the United States and turning it into a Christian theocracy. If someone says this and you ask what it means, you most likely will find it's shorthand for something like this: "Well, I'm just not comfortable with the idea of a godless universe, so I believe in something, but I haven't really worked out exactly what, and it's not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, so I just try to keep a good moral center, but I'm not religious." Whatever their beliefs, that's the one thing the "spiritual-but-not-religious" folks have in common – they don't want to be mistaken for one of those people. And who can blame them?
Now "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual" is in the news. According to a study conducted by Lifeway Christian Resources, 72% of the 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed described themselves as "more spiritual than religious." In an article in USA Today, Lifeway president Thom Rainer says that if this trend continues, "the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships." This reflects the findings of other surveys by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) and the Pew Forum.
According to ARIS, despite the addition of 50 million adults to the population in the last 18 years, religion is steadily losing ground. In fact, the "nones" – people who claim no religious affiliation or no belief at all – now outrank all other religious groups in the United States except for Catholics and Baptists, and its numbers are growing.
Across the board, more and more people are turning their backs on organized religion. None of the surveys I've found have asked why they're doing this – I wish someone would do that study. I suspect high on the list of reasons would be rampant hypocrisy among the religious, as well as the elitist, judgmental and bigoted attitudes of American Christians and the bullying behavior that demands respect from everyone but shows no respect to others. Another reason might be the overwhelming authority churches claim to have over their members (and even non-members) without any real support for it. They dip their hands into people's lives, telling them how they should and shouldn't live. This is typically done by the men in the pulpits – pastors and priests who have decided to devote their lives to telling others how to live theirs. These are usually men who have no formal training in anything but being pastors and priests, and yet they have the arrogance to counsel others on serious life issues, including marriage and family problems, which is especially disturbing in the case of priests who are not allowed to marry and who remain celibate – well, in theory, anyway ... as long as you don't count sex with kids. As their source of authority and wisdom, they point to that ancient book written in a time of astonishing ignorance and superstition, the bible. But that seems to be carrying less weight these days, too. People are steadily seeing the weakness of the bible as a source of divine authority, morality or even good sense.
According to a Gallup poll, one third of the American population believes the bible is the infallible word of god and should be taken literally – an average of 31% between 1991 and 2007, a number that has dropped from 38% in the period between 1976 and 1984. The level of education one has seems to be a factor in how literally they take the bible – the more educated, the less seriously the bible is taken. A third of the country might seem like a hefty percentage – until you realize just how little the believers themselves know about what's in the bible. In his book No Place for Truth, theologian David Wells wrote, "I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy."
According to an article titled "Crisis in America's Churches: Bible Knowledge at All-Time Low" by Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D., the most widely known bible verse among adult and teen Christians is, "God helps those who help themselves" – which isn't even in the bible. Valch writes, "One-third could not put the following in order: Abraham, the Old Testament prophets, the death of Christ, and Pentecost. ... One-third could not identify Matthew as an apostle from a list of New Testament names ... half did not know that the Christmas story was in Matthew, half did not know that the Passover story was in Exodus."
According to Christian researcher George Barna, "Literally millions of Americans who declare themselves to be Christians contend that Jesus was just like the rest of us when it comes to temptation—fallen, guilty, impure, and Himself in need of a savior."
If so many Christians are unfamiliar with the information in the bible that is relevant to their religious beliefs, then how many more have no familiarity at all with the ugly, hateful, immoral and downright horrifying material in the bible – the stuff their pastors and priests never cover in church, the stuff that doesn't make it to buttons and bumper stickers and T-shirts? A lot. In fact, I'll go so far as to say all of them (but I have no statistical study to support that – it's just an opinion based on my experience with Christians).
Whenever I have any kind of discussion with a Christian about religion, sooner or later they fall on the old, "But the bible says so!" argument. Oh, the bible? You mean the old book that condones and advocates things like slavery, child abuse, torture, rape, incest, murder, genocide and communism? That bible? That, of course, is always met with indignant cries of, "It does not!" to which I calmly reply, "Yes, it does." Sooner or later, they say to me, "Prove it!" That's always fun. Because I can. And when I do, almost without exception, they are thrown into stammering, stuttering, slack-jawed speechlessness because they had no idea that the book they'd always believed to be the infallible word of god, the manifesto of god's merciful love for his children, is actually the world's oldest and bestselling horror novel in which the bloodthirsty monster is god.
My wife Dawn recently had a conversation with a friend who's the daughter of a Christian minister. The friend said something about the bible being "god's word of love," and Dawn laughed. She suggested that a god who would command his people not to kill then tell them to wipe out an entire people by killing all the men, women, children, pets and livestock and take any surviving girls home for sex, was not too loving. Her friend insisted the bible contained no such thing. Dawn told her to ask her minister father about it, and the friend said she most definitely would. She never brought the subject up again. I assume Dad filled her in and she preferred not to talk about it anymore.
Throughout the Old Testament, god kills men, women and children, orders his people to kill their own children and loved ones, to burn nonbelievers, and to murder, rape and pillage entire civilizations. He encourages slavery and even tells his people it's okay to sell their own daughters into sexual slavery. But the great majority of Christians are unaware of this because they don't read the bible, they just listen to their pastors and priests tell them about it, and the pastors and priests tell their congregations only what they want them to know. Those who are familiar with it have a number of standard defenses for its litany of obscenities. My favorite is, "Things like that were cultural norms at that time." This, of course, makes no sense, because these same people will adamantly insist that god never ever changes and remains the same god he's always been in every way. But if what god deems acceptable behavior – slavery, rape, torture, child abuse, etc. – changes from one culture to the next, then obviously god does not remain the same and is heavily influenced by what humans deem acceptable behavior ... which is awfully conveeeenient, as the Church Lady used to say. But try pointing that out to them and see what happens. The conversation will become uncomfortable at best, hostile at worst. Usually hostile, by my experience.
Of those who say they believe the bible to be the word of god, how many know exactly what it is they're claiming to believe in? How seriously are we to take people who claim this book came from god when they don't even know what's in it?
Back to the Lifeway Christian Resources survey. 65% of those surveyed call themselves Christian, but Rainer says, "Many of them are mushy Christians or Christians in name only. Most are just indifferent. The more precisely you try to measure their Christianity, the fewer you find committed to the faith."
This brings up the elitist and judgmental attitudes of Christians that I mentioned earlier. Mr. Rainer has no qualms about letting us know that he is capable of deciding which people are real, sincere Christians and which ones are "mushy Christians or Christians in name only," or "indifferent." The bible assures Christians that "whosoever believeth in him (Jesus Christ) should not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16) In that particular part of the bible – the bible goes through wild mood swings throughout – all that's required is belief. But apparently Mr. Rainer knows better and has found many of those who claim to be Christians to be, in truth, severely lacking in some way. I have no idea what he's basing this on, and frankly, I don't care, because along with being appallingly arrogant and judgmental, Mr. Rainer is full of hot air. His dismissal of those whose brand of Christianity he disapproves of is actually a pretty good description of most of the Christians in this country.
Going by my experience with Christians – which is reflected in the experiences of most people I know – most use their religious belief rather than live it, and they use it only when it suits them. Others – even nonbelievers – are expected to live by their religion's rules while they do whatever they like and claim to be "not perfect, just forgiven." Little or no attention is given Jesus's instructions. He tells them to pray in private, but they want public prayer mandated. He tells them to be humble and meek and not judgmental, and ... well, we all know how that's worked out, don't we? It has been my consistent and unwavering experience throughout my life that the most Christ-like people are those who do not believe in or worship Christ. So when Mr. Rainer claims that only some of those who profess to be Christians are actually Christians, which suggests that others are fine, devout, loving, Christ-like Christians, I can't help but laugh.
According to the Lifeway study, 65% of those surveyed "rarely or never pray with others, and 38% almost never pray by themselves either. 65% rarely or never attend worship services. 67% don't read the Bible or sacred texts." Among those who still believed they would go to heaven "because they have accepted Jesus Christ as savior, 68% did not mention faith, religion or spirituality when asked what was 'really important in life.' 50% do not attend church at least weekly. 36% rarely or never read the Bible."
But who are these Christian young people between the ages of 18 and 29? Chances are extremely good that they were born into the religion or targeted by evangelism at a very early age, and the statistics – gathered by Christian researchers – back that up.
According to studies by Nazarene Church Growth Research and the International Bible Society, 83% to 85% of all Christians "make their commitment to Jesus between the ages of 4 and 14, that is, when they are children or early youth."
Between the ages of 4 and 14. I know that's when I made all of my significant life commitments with full knowledge of precisely what I was doing – how about you?
According to an article by Michael Rohling, Manager of Youth and Family Interventions at Southern Illinois Regional Social Services (SIRSS) in Carbondale, Illinois, "Teenagers do not look as complete in brain development as researchers previously thought. According to Barbara Strauch, the medical science and health editor of the New York Times, in her recent book, The Primal Teen [First Anchor Books Edition, September 2004], the notion that the brain was complete at age 13 or 14 has been thrown away. The latest neuroscience is finding that structural changes are not finished until age 25 or so. And, although there are numerous hormones involved, brain development plays a larger part in teen impulses."
In a San Francisco Examiner article, education professional and Lifeline Foundation Inc. co-chair Sharon Biggs wrote, "Prior to full brain development children exhibit the following behaviors more coincidentally vs. consistently: Decision making, use of appropriate judgment; rational thinking; integration of emotion and critical thinking; ability to think clearly about long-term outcomes that stem from behaviors; global thinking vs. self-centered thinking."
Howard Culbertson, professor of missions and world evangelism, writes on the Southern Nazarene University website, "This data illustrates the importance of influencing children to consider making a decision to follow Christ. Because the 4 to 14 period slice of the pie is so large, many have started referring to the '4 to14 Window.'"
So the reasoning behind the "4 to 14 Window" goes something like this: We need to get them before they can think straight. This makes sense, of course. According to the Nazarene Church Growth Research study, only 4% of Christians converted to the faith after the age of 30. Older people, especially those who've been educated – those who have fully-developed brains and have integrated their emotions with critical thought, those who are capable of consistently making rational, carefully thought out decisions – are a little harder to sell on the idea of the earth being poofed into existence in six days, talking animals, seas opening up so people can walk across them, a pregnant virgin, and people rising from the dead than are children between the ages of 4 and 14 whose gray matter, like a mold of unfinished Jell-O, has not yet set. People at 30 and older are not as likely to be convinced that if they don't accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior, his loving and merciful father will make them suffer and burn for all eternity in hell.
It's not suprising that, according to Culbertson, "Many people serving as career cross-cultural missionaries have testified that they first felt god calling them to missionary service during that 4-14 age period." Was that really "god calling them," or was it the high-pressure fear-mongering and guilt trips of adults who know that kids of that age are the easiest to convince, the easiest to dominate and indoctrinate, the targets most likely to yield successful results?
Let me repeat the words of Howard Culbertson: "This data illustrates the importance of influencing children to consider making a decision to follow Christ." Replace the word "influencing" with the word "indoctrinating." I would suggest using the word "brainwashing," but that would imply that prelearned information is being erased and replaced with new information – we're talking about children who don't have any prelearned information to erase. Their young, new minds are being shaped and sculpted at the earliest stages, particularly those who are born into religion and indoctrinated from infancy onward.
No one asked me if I wanted to be a Seventh-day Adventist. That decision was made for me. My earliest memories are of fear of the "last days," of the "national Sunday law" that Adventism teaches its children will be passed, possibly at any moment, forcing everyone to worship on Sunday – Adventists observe the Old Testament Sabbath and worship on Saturday. I was taught that when that happened, we would have to drop what we were doing, flee to the hills and hide in caves so the Catholics and other "Sunday-keepers" couldn't find us, imprison us, torture us, and execute us for our beliefs. I lived in such terror of this happening that every time a TV show I was watching was interrupted for a "special news bulletin," I had a panic attack for fear that the announcement would be about the abrupt passage of the Sunday law. Children born into religion are taught to see the devil around every corner, to prepare for the end of the world, to keep a watchful eye for the antichrist, and all kinds of scary things – all injected into a small child's mind before it can reason or think clearly or choose.
How often have you heard this: I think it's important for children to go to church so they get some kind of moral, Christian training. I've heard my wife's sister say this many times. It's not an uncommon thing for the parents of young children to say. According to a friend of mine who used to be involved in Christian ministry, "Our experience in ministry was that the vast majority of the newcomers to our church – the previously unchurched – between the ages of 25 and 35 started attending solely because they wanted their children to grow up with some form of religious/Christian training. They did not start the church thing for themselves. They only chose our church because it was enjoyable. It didn't really matter to most of them what denomination just so long as it didn't bore the hell out of them. But their commitment was generally pretty flimsy. They never 'caught fire' as we would say."
It's typical for people to think that religion and morality are the same thing. Religion has spent thousands of years claiming that it virtually invented morality. It has commandeered morality and claimed it for its own. Christianity claims that its morality comes from the bible. You remember the bible -- that book that that condones and advocates things like slavery, child abuse, torture, rape, incest, murder, genocide and communism? Yeah, that bible. That's where they claim their morality comes from.
The fact is that morality – right and wrong, good and bad – exist independent of religion and always have. But that's another blog post. Unfortunately, those who've bought into the lie that religion is the source of morality often decide they must turn their children over to what is in fact a system of indoctrination that is ready and waiting to seize control of the minds of those children. Rather than being taught morality or the difference between right and wrong, they will be taught a false morality, taught to believe in myths and invisible, unprovable beings that have nothing to do with morality. They will be taught that they are inherently bad, that they are filled with sin and are worthless unless they accept a non-existent being who will forgive their sins and give them worth. They are told that this being died a horrible death for them and they are obligated to accept him and devote their lives to him, and if they don't, they will burn forever in hell. What does this have to do with morality? What does this have to do with being a good person? Nothing. But these children will be told otherwise, and they will be told at a time when their minds are vulnerable and defenseless.
Sure, they would like you to convert and join their church. But what do they really want? They want your children. That's where their future lies.
There's just one problem. It seems this system of indoctrination isn't working as well as it used to. Young people are walking away from religion more than ever before. And people like Thom Rainer of Lifeway Christian Resources are worried that this trend could cause churches to close "as quickly as GM dealerships." Interesting he referenced car dealerships. It probably would have been more accurate to specify used car dealerships.
But Christians are not surprised by this. They say they've always known this would happen in the last days before Christ's return – the great apostasy, the falling away of Christians as predicted in the bible. When I was a boy living in fear of those last days, I was constantly being reminded of the many signs that we were living in them. Earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, horrible diseases. Never mind that there have always been earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and horrible diseases – don't confuse them with the facts, they hate that. The one that always confused me, found in Daniel 12:4, was this: "many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased." This was always quoted to me as if an increase in knowledge were a bad thing (to say nothing of running to and fro). This made no sense to me. Wouldn't an increase in knowledge be a good thing? That's what I always thought. But everyone I knew seemed so afraid of that idea.
The young people who are now rejecting religion in greater numbers than ever before are living in a time of tremendous knowledge. We now know more than we've ever known about our universe, our planet, our origins, and our bodies, and knowledge only continues to increase faster than ever. The internet has made that knowledge instantly accessible. A quick internet search can answer just about any question you might have about anything. A lot of questions are being answered – questions about god, the bible, religion. Before the internet, these questions were asked of pastors and other church leaders; they were given vague or evasive answers, and if the questioner continued asking, he or she was accused of the sin of doubt and was told to shut the hell up. Now there are other places to get answers, and those answers are being pursued. While it's true that being spiritual but not religious, or rejecting religion but maintaining a belief in some kind of god, is a little like saying, "I don't celebrate Christmas, but I believe in Santa Claus," it's a start. Knowledge is increasing.
"And knowledge shall be increased" is scary to Christians. But it's not a sign of the end of the world. It's a sign of the end of their reign.