What Happened to Religion in America? The I’s Have it

A Southern California synagogue dedicated to the idea that there is no God exemplifies America’s recent turn toward secularism. Is that a good thing?

There are many reasons to join a place of worship. Disbelief in God is not usually one of them.

And yet, total disbelief — as in, “God as a supreme supernatural being, I could never really accept that” — is precisely what keeps Ron Glickman coming to his Orange County, California synagogue.

I spoke with Glickman, a 73-year-old mergers and acquisitions consultant, last year while writing a newspaper story about University Synagogue, founded 27 years ago in Irvine as a place where members, as Glickman put it, “didn’t have to believe that stuff and I could still be a good Jew.” Like every other member of the synagogue I spoke to, Glickman deeply values his Jewish identity and heritage. He even keeps a kosher kitchen. He just doesn’t believe in God.

“I never bought into the God concept part,” he said. Before joining University, “I went through the motions but it didn’t resonate with me. I had my doubts the whole time.”

America, we are told, is becoming less religious. Two years ago, the Pew Research Center made headlines with a survey provocatively titled: “‘Nones’ on the Rise: One in Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation.” The survey found a sudden and rapid uptick in the number of Americans who profess no religious identity at all. For the first time, religiously unaffiliated Americans outnumbered white evangelical Christians.

Since then, virtually every survey of Americans’ religious attitudes has found a weakening of traditional faith. Last year, Pew even found that barely half (51 percent) of Americans planned to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. The number was even lower (39 percent) for Americans under age 30. The trend inspired a major study last year by sociologists at U.C. Berkeley and Duke University (title: “More Americans Have No Religious Preference”) and a forthcoming book from Oxford University Press (Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual But Not Religious, expected in March) on the so-called religious “nones.”

Since the Pew study, there has been a lot of news coverage and a lot of debate in religious circles (not all of it illuminating) about whether, and how much, faith truly is declining in America. Yet, as I discovered while getting to know the members of University Synagogue, the more consequential issue may be how Americans are coming to understand their faith.

Religion in America, as one scholar I spoke to put it, is becoming more libertarian — that is, more pluralistic, individualistic and insistent on every believer’s right to make up his or her own mind. That sounds like a major departure from the denominational loyalties that governed religious life in America for centuries. But social change is always complex. And, at places like University Synagogue, it might turn out to be the continuities that matter most — and that offer the biggest warning for people of faith.

A Brave New (Irreligious) World

University is one of the largest synagogues in Southern California, with more than 600 member families, a preschool, an annual Orange County Jewish film festival and a speaker series featuring best-selling authors and members of the Israeli Knesset. University is also a Reconstructionist synagogue, part of a nearly century-old branch of Judaism dedicated to the idea that, in the words of Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, “There’s no ultimate truth in any religion. People are just trying to figure it out.”

Members disavow not only traditional Jewish belief in God but also the idea that any religious or philosophical system has a unique claim to authority. “All religions (are) parallel paths to the same divine reality,” Rachlis said when I first spoke with him last year. Hence, University’s adult education offerings include classes on yoga and meditation. Members participate in traditional Jewish services but feel free to substitute their own meanings for the words of ancient prayers. A quarter of members are married to non-Jewish partners. Those spouses are not expected to convert.

University started in 1987 with a handful of local Jewish families who, in the words of founding president Carol Richmond, “were having the feeling we were having to leave our brains at the door” of the synagogue they were attending at the time. Richmond, now 65, had a son preparing for his bar mitzvah. “I felt what he was getting was nothing,” she said. “Services that were based on rote instead of genuine feeling. A lack of depth . . . I felt like the place was going through the motions.”

The families formed what Richmond called a “friendship group” with some other local Jews who wanted to keep “the intellectual piece” of Judaism and the community of synagogue life without the requirement of belief. For a while, the group made up its own prayers and services, inspired in part by Richmond’s discovery of the writings of Reconstructionist founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Then one member happened to meet Rachlis, who had trained as a Reconstructionist rabbi, at a Jewish speaking event in Washington, D.C.

Soon, Rachlis was flying out to lead periodic services for crowds topping 100 in members’ backyards. The group migrated to various meeting places until settling at their current purpose-built campus in 2004. There, the comforts of Jewish tradition combine with community solidarity and intellectual exploration to create an environment where people say, “Oh my God, I can be who I am here,” said Rachlis.

I can be who I am. That theme of personal religious freedom echoed in every conversation I had with members of University Synagogue. “I’m an independent thinker,” Sari Schreiber, the synagogue’s current president, told me. “I don’t take things on authority or because people have always thought that way.”

“Stick with it if it works for you,” Carol Richmond advised traditional religious believers. “But if it doesn’t work for you, let’s ask questions.”

“I don’t have to believe in a being or an entity that performs miracles,” Ron Glickman said with a note of relief. “That’s not my belief and I don’t think it ever was.”

Such freedom strikes some observers as unabashed good news. “It is a brave new world for religious Americans who are increasingly unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions,” wrote Emory University religion department chairman Gary Laderman in the Huffington Post last year.

But just how new — or brave — is it?

The United States of Religious Individuals

As it happens, I come at this question from an unusual vantage. I’m a reporter — read: instinctively skeptical — and also a committed Christian married to an Episcopal priest. I used to be one of the religious “nones” until I converted many years ago and my skepticism was refuted and then rendered irrelevant by traditional Christian apologetics and belief. My story runs in the opposite direction from America’s trend toward religious libertarianism.

I once prized making up my own mind, but these days I’m much less confident in my own brainpower. I’m drawn to the wisdom of Christians like St. Benedict, who insisted over and over that life — intellectual life, too — is best lived in community. Spiritual freelancing, according to this tradition, risks becoming self-worship.

It’s for this reason I don’t see a lot new in Americans’ present insistence on believing, or not believing, as they choose. Individualism has always been a core element of American identity — and religiosity.

Recently, I read Yale historian Sydney Ahlstrom’s magisterial A Religious History of the American People. I was deflated to discover that as early as the 1690s, Christian merchants in Boston were already lobbying to tone down Puritan leaders’ Bible-based restrictions on trade and moneymaking. In other words, they insisted that religion complement, not oppose, what they wanted to do anyway.

At times, religious Americans have stood against their country’s selfish impulses, working to abolish slavery, mitigate the malign effects of industrialization and, in the case of Jews and Catholics, establish educational and healthcare infrastructures for immigrant minorities spurned by xenophobic Protestants. Mostly, though, religion in America has been a go along, get along companion of the nation’s self-enriching plunge into capitalist and imperialist expansion.

What I see in the emergence of religious “nones” is the logical endgame of this quintessentially American style of worship. Is it really such a surprise that a nation of individualists, encouraged by corporate advertisers to see themselves as empowered, self-actualizing consumers, feels free to cobble together whatever form of belief or non-belief works for them?

Committed religious Americans, especially Christians, have done themselves no favors in recent decades by aligning with right-wing politicians and with anti-scientific currents of thought that make it all the easier for faith to be dismissed as a crutch for dumb conservatives. But, really, the moral failure of faith in America is bigger than that. When religion throws in its lot with the dominant social trends of its host nation, it becomes subject to those trends. Perhaps the rise of religious “nones” is merely the harvest of a faith that never intended to stand against America’s everyone-their-own-master ethos in the first place.

Which is why I don’t necessarily see the rise of the “nones” as the dawn of a brave new world. The people I spoke to at University Synagogue are smart, ethical, committed members of a warm, supportive community. But not everyone is so thoughtful and generous when given the opportunity to construct their own moral system. These days, American corporations, with their unprecedented ability to project themselves into the daily lives of consumers, are the dominant voice in America’s ongoing moral reconstruction project. I find nothing brave in the patently selfish goals of such corporate dominance.

New world or not, we’re the same old people. Before letting the old time religion go, maybe we should try taking it seriously — at last.

Jim Hinch
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  • Rock On

    I am shocked at Jews who dont believe or encourage others to believe in their Judaism.
    Its ridiculous to think that a Jew who marries a non-Jew and this goes on for 3 or 4 generations will view themselves as Jews.
    If Jews dont believe in a “religion”….with a set of similar traditions and beliefs…..what makes someone a Jew? Assimiliation without religion will destroy Jews in America longterm. And if you dont assimiliate what does that mean and even entail?
    I am Catholic and I am about as Jewish as a Virginia ham on Easter Sunday, but my ancestry a few generations back includes Jews.
    I think its sad if Jews go down that route. All that discrimination and genocide, etc and Judaism continued……….whod a thunk, Jews would exterminate their identity all by themselves. Israelis will carry on, but Jews (in America for instance ) will not.

  • Tom from North Carolina

    I’m one of those built-in contradictions — a nonbeliever who attends a mainstream Christian church every Sunday and even plays guitar during the contemporary server. In the words of my middle son, “Why?”.

    There are a few answers. I really enjoy the people in the church that I attend. I enjoy making music, the social activities and spending time with people in and out of church who happen to be good friends. I also believe in many of the values that my church advances; not in any supreme being or son of God myths, but in a shared sense of responsibility to help people. In my case, I do this not to please some mythical father figure, but because my personal moral value system thinks it’s inherently good to reduce suffering. This goes to one of the points that Mr. Hinch made where he spoke about the on-going tension between individualism and religions’ desire to focus thinking (and belief) in a uniform fashion. And the final reason for attending church is to demonstrate that you can be a moral, compassionate and giving person without the help or guidance of God.

    What Mr. Hinch never explained is why he moved from a virtual agnostic to a believer. Was that simply because of who he married or did he undergo an epiphany based on a comprehensive assessment of various belief systems concluding that the Episcopal denomination offered the antidote to his disbelief. I would have liked to hear the arguments which refuted his lack of belief.

    In my case, although I have been active in churches for more than 25 years, in the back of my mind, reasoning prevented me from buying the story. At the point in my life where I could no longer share faith without a deep sense of deceiving people, I fessed up and admitted my lack of faith to friends and to my pastor. I still enjoy going to church and making music. I also enjoy supporting the church when it runs a food bank or a blood drive, or does anything that tangibly helps people. But I’ve come to conclude that religion has been a net loss to humanity. Although Mr. Hinch talked about religions working to right many of society’s wrongs, the picture is far less rosy than he implies. Many religions worked hard to abolish slavery except in my part of the country — the south. Here they worked fervently to continue slavery and even after it was abolished, they fought to preserve segregation for another 100 years.

    In the last 25 years, religion has increasingly become irrelevant to the lives of more and more Americans. And what’s more telling is that religion has been left in the dust regarding contemporary issues of fairness and equality. Standing on the shifting foundation of 2,000 year old society, religion continues to fight against providing comprehensive healthcare to all, against letting two adults who love each other enjoy the status and the benefits of being married and many religions still just people by their race, nationality, religion or sexual orientation and give no thought to judging people on how they they treat others. This, more than anything else, sums up why religion is dying except in areas of ignorance and destitute; and the sooner this happens, the better for humanity.

    • ACR

      >>Many religions worked hard to abolish slavery except in my part of the country

      No they didn’t.
      Some churches might well have behaved in the fashion described, but to lay those actions at the feet of an entire religion is nonsense.

      • Tom from North Carolina

        So from your historical understanding southern churches actively fought to abolish slavery? In the words of Stephen Colbert, there’s a whole lot of truthiness in that statement.

  • Matt Davis

    I wonder which apologetic arguments convinced the author? I haven’t found one convincing yet. Apologetics seems to be for doubting believers rather than atheists, because most apologetics are very weak.

    Author, please let us know which arguments convinced you! I’d like to try to refute them, if you’re game! Just for fun, eh?