The Shape of Belief in the New Millennium

October 8th, 2009


During the 1960s, theologians and sociologists predicted the imminent collapse of traditional religion. In his groundbreaking 1965 book, The Secular City, Harvard theologian Harvey Cox foresees the days when secularism would soon reign supreme. One year later, a provocative Time magazine cover story asked, “Is God Dead?”

But by now, it’s become crystal clear that a secular city is about as likely as shorter work weeks or paperless offices. “It would appear that news of God’s death will always be premature,” writes Michael Shermer in How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science (Freeman), one of a number of new books describing the shifting shapes of contemporary American belief.

Nobody’s been probing the state of America’s soul longer than George Gallup Jr., who’s tracked people’s religious views for more than half a century.

During that time, one thing hasn’t changed a bit: Americans remain the most religious people on the planet. Consistently, around 95% of Americans report that they believe in God, surpassing Canadians (70% of whom believe) or Britons (at 61%).

And as Gallup reports in Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs (Morehouse), interest in religion only promises to grow in the future, at least if American teens have their way.

“In a typical week, nearly half of the teens in this country attend religious services at least once,” he writes, adding that, “American young people express great confidence in their eclipsing the charity and faith of their parents. Sixty-five percent of the nation’s youth are ’very’ or ’somewhat’ confident that they will be more religious than their parents. An even greater percentage of them (85%) believe they will spend more time helping others than their parents currently do.”

Youths differ with their elders in one other significant way, reports Gallup: “Almost all older Americans who endorse religious belief condemn premarital sex. By contrast, only one in four young people (ages 18 to 29) deem premarital sex as wrong.” Teens accept premarital sex as normal more than any other group, including self-described liberals, 63% of whom consider premarital sex as wrong.

Another major trend identified by Gallup is that spirituality of all kinds is booming, even if traditional religious behavior is merely holding its own. “The percentage of Americans who say they feel the need in their lives to experience spiritual growth has surged from 58% in 1994 to 82% in 1998,” writes Gallup, an Episcopal layman.

Church and synagogue attendance and membership figures have remained remarkably stable over the years, with around 40% of Americans attending weekly, and around 70% saying they belong.

Still, members don’t give their churches the kind of unquestioning loyalty they once did. For example, 79% of U.S. Catholics say they’re far more likely to follow the dictates of their own consciences than the teachings of the Pope.

Boomers Point the Way
The most insightful of the new studies, however, is Wade Clark Roof’sSpiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton). “Religion in the United States is like a brilliantly colored kaleidoscope ever taking on new configurations of blended hues,” writes sociologist Roof, who’s updated his acclaimed 1993 book, A Generation of Seekers.

Roof plans to study Baby Busters next time around, but for now, youth workers can draw plentiful insights from Roof’s investigation of Baby Boomer spirituality, which has forever transformed the way Americans—including Busters—approach issues of religion and belief.

During his work on Spiritual Marketplace, Roof revisited some of the Boomers he interviewed in his 1993 book—and who are remaking the American religious landscape in their own image. His new study illuminates seemingly contradictory reports about the current state of belief, concluding that while religion may be losing some of its influence in public life, spirituality is becoming a more important component of people’s personal lives.

Roof, who was raised a Methodist, finds a growing discontent with secular “salvations” such as progress, science, or careers and “a yearning for something that transcends a consumption ethic and material definitions of success.” Like Lester Burnham—played by actor Kevin Spacey in the filmAmerican Beauty—Boomers seem to be saying, “I’ve lost something, but I’m not exactly sure what it is.”

Their yearning has given birth to something Roof calls “a quest culture,” which is characterized by “a deep hunger for a self-transformation that’s both genuine and personally satisfying.” For some, this quest has led to church, while others have drawn inspiration and guidance from books, therapy, self-help groups, the Internet, and popular culture.

“There is a staggering openness to exploring possibilities of belief,” writes Roof, who notes that auto makers have christened Boomer-targeted vans and SUVs with quasi-spiritual names like Explorer, Voyager, Pathfinder, Discovery, Odyssey, and Quest.

Roof breaks Baby Boomers into five major subgroups: born-again Christians (who constitute one-third of the total); mainline Catholics and Protestants (dwindling at 25% of the whole); metaphysical believers and seekers constitute 14% of the population but have a larger impact than their numbers might indicate); dogmatists (who consider themselves “religious” but not “spiritual,” at 15%) and secularists (neither religious nor spiritual, and accounting for 12%).

Members of all these groups exhibit a mix-and-match approach to meaning that is closer to a jazz musician’s improvisational style than a choir member’s more classical approach.

“The real story of American religious life in this half-century is the rise of a new sovereign self that defines and sets limits on the very meaning of the divine,” writes Roof.

In their quest for meaningful spiritual lives, Boomers want to be grounded, but at the same time they want to remain fluid. “There is,” writes Roof, “the dilemma of wanting social support and community, yet resisting too much infringement on personal space.”

These surveys should give youth workers plenty to ponder—and possibly worry—about. But one thing is clear: Christian leaders who want to help others come into a deeper walk of faith must become more intentional about theological formation and community building. These two important discipleship needs won’t happen in a vacuum, and those who choose to pattern their life after Jesus will face formidable cultural obstacles.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.