As religious affiliation declines in the United States, more people feel free to question their faith.
“I still feel guilty when I swear,” my friend Sheila told me. She grew up in the Midwest. Her Pentecostal grandmother and Southern Baptist parents deluged her with a healthy dose of right and wrong. Years later, after her devout Christian husband divorced her for another woman, she became jaded.
“I believed in God, but knew when I attended church it was more about the people and the pastor,” she said. My faith and spirituality were very important to me, but private. I’d already begun to question my faith, but when my husband left, it was the final straw. I just didn’t believe it anymore.” Sheila is not alone.
According to a Pew Research Study, the percentage of Christians in the United States dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6 in 2014. The drop has primarily been in mainline Christian denominations with a rise in populations among those who are religiously unaffiliated, including atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” 36% of young millennials, between the ages of 18-24, the study shows, and 34% of older millennials, 25-33, do not identify with any religion.
There are a plethora of reasons for the decline. A computer scientist at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, Allen Downey, believes that the Internet is partly to blame. Accounting for income, education, socioeconomic status, and rural/urban environments, Downey concluded, “Internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation.”
Quite simply, as people learn more about other people and cultures, information replaces superstition and religious beliefs. This is one of the main reasons more educated cultures tend to be less religious. A 2002 Gallup poll showed 97% of people who graduated high school believed in God or a universal spirit compared to 88% of those with postgraduate degrees.
Religion is generally passed down through families rather than grown through outside converts. We believe what we are told and think what we believe is completely normal. We seldom stop to question if it is true, or if it makes sense. Julia Sweeney, in her delightfully funny one-woman show, Letting Go of God, poignantly tells the story of meeting two Mormon missionaries at her door.
Raised Catholic, Sweeney said she initially felt superior to the boys and “smug in my conventional faith.” Soon, however, she realized how ridiculous her own faith would have sounded if she had not grown up in it. “If someone came to my door and I was hearing catholic theology and dogma for the very first time…I would have thought that was equally ridiculous, but I’m so used to that story,” she said.
Seldom do we think to question our faith or upbringing. In some faiths, such as the one in which I was raised, questions feel blasphemous. Of course God exists! To suggest otherwise is seen as a weakness in the culture, or worse, sinful. The questioner is believed to be deceived by the devil. The consequences of questions can lead to exclusion from the church member’s social circle and family.
One friend of mine, who worked with youth at his church, was asked to leave when he questioned his church’s interpretation of the Scripture. His own studies led to different conclusions about what the ancient text meant, and those conclusions weren’t in line with the church’s beliefs. Rather than go along with the crowd, he couldn’t escape the facts of science.
Dr. Clay Routledge says that is when religions can become distressing. “The reason is that many (but certainly not all) religious beliefs are at odds with scientific knowledge. For example, if a person strongly desires to believe the traditional Biblical view that God created humans in their present form but is confronted with an increasing amount of evidence that another perspective (evolution) is more accurate, this individual may be distressed.”
As the trend toward disaffiliation grows, millions of people find themselves outside a system of social support and the adjustment can be difficult. Former Scientologist, Leah Remeni said, “[Scientology] formed who I am, good and bad. It formed the way I think, good and bad. And so there’s a lot of pain connected to it, there’s a lot of healing.”
Some people try joining atheist groups as a replacement, but often find that many hardline atheists don’t understand the struggle of leaving a childhood religion. It’s not simply about whether or not God exists, but about disconnecting from an entire system of faith, culture, belief and altered reality. The emotional recovery can be intense.
Sean, a former evangelical Christian decided to put his efforts into a local atheist organization to help others coming from religious abuse, but found that some members of the atheist community couldn’t relate to him. “They just gave me pat answers and dismissed what I was feeling,” he said. “I can agree that the God I believed in doesn’t exist, but there are a lot of good people I knew from church. I don’t feel the need to be angry with them, or even angry about my experiences. They weren’t all bad. What I believed just wasn’t true.”
Some religious de-converts go through the process of change alone and thus, struggle to find community, though sometimes find support for the thing that caused them to question their faith in the first place. Murlena joined a group of moms who were forced to choose between their church and their gay kids.
“I’m so lucky to have found these women,” she said of her support group. “I was told that my kid was going to hell just for being a lesbian. She’s a wonderful person and I’ve seen the struggle she’s had to go through just to accept herself. There was no way I was going to stay in that church. If they can’t accept her, they can’t accept me.”
More recently, there are a number of organizations forming to help people process the change in their lives to a life without faith. Recovering from Religion provides a hotline, 1-84-I-DOUBT-IT, to callers in need of an ear. There is also BeSecular.com and RecoveringFundamentalists.com. There are any number of Facebook and Social media support groups, as well.
In my own travels, I talk to people who have questioned their faith, given up on their faith, or struggled to reconcile their life experiences with their faith’s ideologies. The good news is they are not alone. The bad news is that it’s difficult to find people in the same situation because there is an embarrassment or shame attached to walking away from long-held religious beliefs, particularly in areas where people are defensive about their faith, feeling as though it has been singled out for attack.
As we continue to change and grow, reconciling our experiences with our beliefs, it’s natural to come to different conclusions, but sometimes difficult to find the freedom to express them. It’s important to remember that there are usually others who feel the way we do, it all just depends on who’s going to say it first.
Photo – Flickr/ alexcoitus