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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why do my beliefs not match my religion?

These days I'm meeting more and more people who, when asked what religion they belong to, will say one thing; but when asked what they really believe and what they really live by, will describe something else. Many of those beliefs turn out to be quite different than you'd expect in a Texas city, but then Houston has always been a bit of a multicultural island here in the south.

One of my earliest experiences of this was a couple I met through my local Humanist organization. They came from Russia to live here in Houston, and said they were Catholics. Their attendance at a Humanist meeting, apparently in full agreement with Humanism, confused me so they clarified. They described how their family has always been Catholic and that has become a part of their culture; their identity. They were actually shocked when they came to the United States and spoke with other Catholics, saying, "wow, you people really believe this stuff!"

But it's not just foreigners. It's happening with multi-generational Americans. Once a friend of mine took an online test to see what religion he most closely matched. My friend is Hispanic with a long tradition of Catholicism in his family, yet he came up on the test with the beliefs of a Unitarian (basically Humanist). That wasn't the surprise, however. The surprise was his reaction. In my naivety, I expected him to have an epiphany and begin looking into Unitarianism. But he simply said, "yeah I know, I don't believe most of that stuff but I'm still a Catholic". At the time I was baffled.

Most of us by now have seen the many articles and statistics about the sharp decline of self-professing Christians in the U.S. and the sharp increase in those professing "no religion" over the past two decades. President Obama, has begun to mention "those of no faith" in the same breath with the other religions and even mentioned humanists in a recent speech - this, no doubt, an acknowledgment of America's rapidly changing demographics. Newsweek published an article earlier this month boldly titled "The End of Christian America". Oddly, none of the articles I've seen have made the very obvious connection of these statistics to the rise of the internet. It used to be that a person growing up in a small town would only see and talk to those around him or her, who often belonged to the same churches in pretty much the same belief systems and perspectives. This would be the case even in our isolated sub-cultures here in Houston. But, with the opportunity of young people to speak with people all over the world and see a wider variety of opinions, it becomes harder to see the traditional faith of our families as necessarily the "one truth".

But I'm not really talking about the changing demographics in America, rather something I think is a little more interesting. I'm talking about the demographics that aren't changing - at least on paper. More importantly, what are those self-identifying Christians really believing, and is that anything like what their grandparents would have called Christianity? I think if we took this into account, we'd find the religious landscape is changing even more than we think.

As I write, the Christian survey and research organization The Barna Group has a lead article on its recent findings that most Americans do not believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit exist (recall the recent infamous 'Blasphemy Challenge' that circulated the web beginning in late 2006, in which the Rational Response Squad claimed the books of Mark 3:28-29 and Matthew 12:30-32 meant that denying the Holy Spirit is the only unforgivable sin). Barna claims that, even just among self-proclaimed Christians, that a full quarter of them descibe God in ways that are inconsistent with Christian teachings, such as "the realization of human potential" for example. Incredibly, more than one fifth of Christians do not even believe that Jesus Christ was perfect and without sin.

After my own incredibly difficult coming out to my religiously conservative family about my beliefs several years ago, I am no longer naive on the topic. I can fully understand how it is so much easier not to rock the boat. Your family, extended family, friends all go to church, engage in the various rituals of your traditional religion, have celebrations and feasts, and so on. So we end up practicing "cultural Judaism" and become "cultural Christians", and "cultural Muslims".

From what I've been able to tell, beliefs about the supernatural and the afterlife are tending to loosen up across the spectrum - not just among Christians, but all Americans. There is more of a willingness to live and let live, rather than insisting our beliefs are the only "way, the truth, and the life". The beliefs are becoming more generalized as a "higher power" or a "greater good". And, of course, there is a mix of New Age, pseudoscience, and other influences making their way into the collective consciousness. This seems to be happening to a surprising degree even here in the south. In Houston, there has been a rise in the membership of non-theistic local organizations like the Humanists of Houston, the Houston Church of Freethought, and other groups.

My concern is that as more people begin to shift in their beliefs, they will become lost. Traditionally, our source of meaning, the basis of our ethics, our sense of self worth, and the stable values on which we built our lives have been intricately entangled with our religions and their various supernatural worldviews. But if those are no longer in place for people such as the cultural Christians arising in America, then it won't be long before they realize that traditional rituals alone won't be enough to save them and their families from the barren meaningless landscape of Wal-marts, iPods, and materialism plaguing our society. People need spiritual values, but when they're no longer buying into the mythology, then how can we begin to plant our feet firmly on something that will help us find value and meaning in life and guide us on "how best to live"? These are issues I hope to explore more in the future here as your Houston Humanist Examiner. Please subscribe and check back here for more exploration, where we'll be looking into some possible treasures for living, from ancient philosophy to modern science.

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