A recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicates that one in five Americans now claim no religious affiliation, up from 15 percent just five years ago. On the other hand, Protestants, the leading religious tribe in America, has dipped below the 50 percent mark for the first time in history.
I am sure that many of my fellow Christians will find these statistics highly distressing, but I find it exciting. I find it exciting because it means that those of us who call ourselves “Christian” (Protestant and Catholic alike) will be challenged to offer a more robust representation of our deeply held beliefs in the marketplace of ideas.
Once upon a time, I was a “none”: someone with no religious affiliation. I had grown up around church, but in my teen years, I walked away. Like many teens who dropped out of faith, my first steps were taken in rebellion against the “rules” of religion. Church cramped my style and I simply didn’t like it. But then, as I went to college, my mind was flooded with new ideas that left little room for faith. I went from opportune fleer to confirmed opponent.
In my senior year of college I had an extraordinary encounter with Jesus Christ. This encounter was not due to evangelical pressure from some group, but was more of a “spontaneous combustion.” I wasn’t quite sure what it all meant, but I was skeptical enough to set out on a yearlong journey to try and make sense of what had happened to me. How could a belief in God be both emotionally powerful and intellectually satisfying?
I began by reading a book that had I found in my college bookstore: “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn, a professor at Princeton University. Among other things, Kuhn suggested that the adoption of new scientific paradigms were not influenced by data alone, but also by the culture of the scientific community studying the data. As a non-scientist, I am not in a position to debate Kuhn’s book. However, as I reflected on it, I began to understand that a lot of what I had been taught in college as factual was really interpretive: professors and students both held certain theories to be universal truth. Any deviation from the interpretation, especially in a religious direction, exposed you to ridicule. I came to understand there was a culture of disbelief as strong in some settings as the culture of belief in a backwoods Baptist church can be.
Oftentimes, Christians are accused of “imposing their beliefs” on others in the public arena, especially when it comes to “hot topics” such as sexual morality. However, I have had numerous people try to impose their secular beliefs on me. If I didn’t accept the party line, I was a dumb fundamentalist. Well, I am willing to concede some ground on my personal intellectual abilities, but the truth is, there have been some very smart people who have held to a vibrant faith in Christ, among them C.S. Lewis, author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” J.R.R. Tolkien author of the “Lord of the Rings”, William Wilberforce, the English parliamentarian who ended the slave trade in the British Empire, and Jennifer Wiseman, a NASA astronomer. The point is this: the “nones” don’t have the corner on truth.
If truth is what describes reality and our place in it, then we should all pursue it with a passion that can’t help but spill on to others (imposing?). Indeed we need to pursue it with a civil attitude toward others, but not with an indifference that simply allows for “different strokes for different folks.” In one sense, I am glad for the Pew Report because it raises the issue once again of the role of religion in the public sphere and how it might influence public choices. Perhaps this time, we can have an intelligent debate about it.
My great fear is that we will position ourselves according to our prejudices (both religious and secular) rather than thinking and talking through the issues. I believe it was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Maybe it’s time to reexamine ourselves and find that kind of life.
Rev. Jim Govatos is senior pastor at Aloma United Methodist Church located in Winter Park. A former atheist, Jim is passionate about helping people understand and experience a living faith in Jesus Christ. Please share your thoughts by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org