Teaching World Religions in the summer term. It's always a fascinating 8 weeks, even in Oklahoma, where you can safely assume the degree of homogeneity in religious expression is very high. While diversity in classes can often look like Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Agnostic instead of Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, Atheist, this term seems to have more of the unaffiliated than ever before, even as there are exactly zero students who have never been Christian. Such is life in the third most religious city in America.
A religions course can often turn into an extended discussion about the grievances amassed over a lifetime (even an 18-year lifetime) of religious observance. I try to avoid that by answering as many questions as possible, encouraging the avoidance of cynicism, and filling in the gaps between experience and knowledge. This is particularly difficult when students believe their understanding of their faith is the faith that was "once for all entrusted." What you might find surprising is that the "spiritual but not religious" group is the most difficult to work with, primarily because they believe they have found a personalized expression of faith.
Much has been made about the growth of "nones" in the past few years, the group who consistently checks "none" on surveys about religious faith. As with all surveys, how questions are shaped determines how good the data is. If a question is multiple choice, the answers must fit within the parameters of the possible responses. For example: What is your faith? a. christian b. buddhism c. islam d. judaism e. hindu f. none.
Clearly, that's a poor question. It assumes the five major faiths are the primary conduits for the transmission of religious frameworks. While I believe that is largely true, there are other factors at work culturally right now. What does none or spiritual but not religious really mean? I'm pretty sure the growth of nones is at least partly due to disaffection with the label Christian.
One of my students happily informed me that she is not a Christian. Instead, she believes in God. Her friend sitting next to her said she too fit that category. The friend, it turns out, attends a Pentecostal church. Clearly, she's confused about what "just believe in God" actually means. The first student who spoke, though, doesn't attend a church. Here's the conversation:
S. I just believe in God.
Me: Resurrection, crucifixion, savior of the world, remission of sins, second coming, heaven and hell?
S. I just believe in God. No labels.
Me: Father, Son and Spirit? Salvation?
S. Yes (reluctantly).
Me: So you take a story from the four Gospels, one that is canonized by Church Councils, propagated by ministers and missionaries, and communicated to you through Christian witness, and you believe that your story is just one wherein you simply believe in God? You see that everything you believe is shaped by the Christian story, and you have simply chosen to pretend as if you arrived at your simple beliefs in God without benefit of two millenia of Christian tradition, despite the fact that you believe the same story they do?
To her credit, she got it. (The friend did not. Can't save 'em all, eh?) She is no more a none than her Pentecostal friend sitting next to her, yet both would have checked none on a survey. Both students are weary of the word Christian. It comes with too much baggage in their minds. I'm weary of people trying to find new ways to pretend they don't stand within 2000 years of Church tradition, even as they construct a "personalized faith" the substance of which is drawn from the Christian Gospel but stripped of elements that require commitment, community, and humility. The radical individualism and consumerism in our culture makes a personalized faith seem perfectly normal. Why wouldn't I personalize my faith? It's mine, after all, just like my political views, mp3 player, favorite DVD, pet, friends, and church. I chose them all, based solely on the question "What do I like?"
All the new Christian categories—Christ follower, Jesus follower, follower of the Way (hell, just pick one)—are all concepts that are used intentionally to avoid the unhappy conclusion that the follower is really a Christian, but a Christian who doesn't like the Christian tradition or church or some doctrine. Better to own the word Christian than have me interrogate you only to discover that you are actually a Christian. At that point, I think you're dishonest, disingenuous, ignorant, narcissistic, or confused. None of those are good.
Christians aren't the only guilty parties, though. Many of my spiritual but not religious acquaintances have no genuine framework for their faith. It's a completely self-serving construct that allows them to believe, in the words of Christian Smith I believe, "God loves me and wants me to be happy." What that requires is no commitment to a larger tradition, and a radical internalizing of metaphysical assumptions, all of which are exempt from criticism. Do you pray? Yes. Do you attend worship services? No. Do you have a sacred text? No. Will you go to heaven? Yes. What will it be like? It will be what I make it. How do you know there is a God? I just do. What's he or she like? He loves me. He's kind and forgiving and gracious. Why should he be those things and not angry, vengeful and capricious? He's not. How can you know this? What tradition taught you this? I have no tradition. I just know this. I'm not a religious person, just spiritual.
It's utter nonsense, of course. It's the ultimate metaphysical cafeteria. God becomes the means whereby I think good thoughts about myself and my life. His function is simply to be my invisible therapist and to approve of the things I do, unless he has to disapprove briefly because I got drunk and banged a stranger, but then he is quick to forgive and remind me that I'm worth more than that. That this is a completely internal monologue ought not be lost on those of us who are not spiritual or religious, but convincing the practitioners of the cult of the self that they are neither spiritual nor religious either is a quixotic task. If choosing between the nones and the spiritual but not religious, I'll side with the nones. They seem to recognize that their story is not literally their story.