Americans’ proclivity for do-it-yourself projects appears to be extending more and more into the religious arena, a tendency that has serious implications for the church. Parade Magazine recently reported on a survey of “Spirituality in America,” and some of the results were striking.
Forty-five percent of 1,051 respondents said they considered themselves to be religious, but 24 percent described themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Just 12 percent of respondents consider their religion to be “the” faith that has all the answers while 59 percent preferred a belief that “all religions have validity.”
Thirty-eight percent of poll-takers consider themselves to be less religious than their parents, 19 percent said they were more religious, and 43 percent said they and their parents had similar inclinations toward religion.
Church-goers who note declining attendance would not be surprised that just 30 percent of the respondents indicated that they attend church daily (3 percent) or weekly (27 percent). Those who count noses might wonder if even those numbers are high.
When asked who they would turn to first when needing counsel, most respondents said they rely on family members (55 percent) or friends (24 percent). Just 17 percent indicated a preference for consulting spiritual leaders.
I found it interesting that the same percentage of people believe they’ve had contact with the dead (17 percent), and 12 percent say they believe in astrology and check their horoscopes regularly. A total of 13 percent of respondents said they have consulted a psychic in person (9 percent) or by phone (4 percent). An additional 9 percent said they have discovered their own psychic powers.
While some of these results were quite enlightening, other results meant little because they were based on what I consider to be poorly designed questions. For example, a question asking “What do you typically pray for?” allowed respondents to check multiple options, but limited the options to these: personal success, money or other material things, good health, to get through a crisis, for the well-being of others, for forgiveness and none of the above. Jesus’ teaching and example suggest that we should pray first for God’s will to be done, but the question offered only self-serving responses. Does that tell us more about the respondents or those who designed the survey?
Another question had a different problem: pollsters reported that 59 percent of respondents believe “Religion can help solve the world’s problems and offer hope to the suffering” while 41 percent believe “Religion has too often led to war and suffering.” The problem is those were the only options given to a question asking “Which of the following statements do you agree with more?”
While one’s response might indicate his or her general feelings about religion as a force for good in the world, both statements are completely true: religious beliefs at their best can motivate people to aid and bless humankind in incredible ways, but distorted versions of religion can also inspire bloody war and horrific crimes against humanity.
Given the extent to which the misuse of religion makes the news these days, it’s not hard to understand why some people choose to give up on religion altogether or design their own do-it-yourself version of the faith.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.