None of the Above: Religious Implications


DEBORAH POTTER: On a Saturday morning at Boundless Yoga, owner and instructor Kim Weeks is in what she calls her sacred space.

KIM WEEKS (Owner, Boundless Yoga): I feel the universe. I feel energy. I feel mysterious forces working through my body and I see them in other people.

POTTER: Weeks is among the 46 million Americans that our poll found have no religious affiliation, almost one in five. But they’re not entirely secular. About a third describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

MATT FOWLER: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty good description. As a matter of fact I think I say that all the time. I’m spiritual but not really religious.

NANDINI GOPINADH: I definitely don’t call myself religious at all so I would think I am spiritual, where I believe we’re all connected in some way but I’m not religious in any way.

Kim WeeksPOTTER: Kim Weeks has come a long way from the conservative Southern Methodist church of her childhood and the religious home she grew up in.

WEEKS: We didn’t go so far as do regular Bible readings but we weren’t that far from it. I mean God was, and Jesus, were both present in our daily lives, and in daily discourse.

POTTER: Things began to change when she was 12. Her parents divorced and she started questioning the church’s teachings.

WEEKS: The flaw in the organized religion that I understand, and that I was raised to believe is that the answers are too quick, they’re too easy. The sort of question marks I have to put over the thesis that there was a virgin birth. I mean just stuff like that, it’s difficult for me to accept all those things and believe in something and stay contained inside of that belief based on the frankly veiled threat that I’m going to go to hell if I don’t.

POTTER: Religion scholar Diana Butler Bass has studied the growth of the spiritual but not religious. In her latest book, subtitled “The End of Church,” she writes that they share a deep dislike for religious institutions.

Diana Butler BassDIANA BUTLER BASS (Author, Christianity After Religion): I think that the main problem that people identify with religion and religious institutions is hypocrisy, is that they look at these institutions and they see people who are more concerned about politics, more concerned about money, more concerned about their own power, and that’s just not what people expect out of a faith institution. They expect some level of authenticity, especially in the leadership. They would like religious institutions to practice what they preach.

POTTER: Butler Bass says the sex abuse scandal and cover-up in the Roman Catholic church and the fight over the ordination of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church helped accelerate a long, slow decline in religious affiliation. Despite that, Butler Bass sees in America a new spiritual awakening.

DIANA BUTLER BASS: People who are in the unaffiliated categories are engaging in spiritual practices and those run the gamut from pilgrimage to contemplative prayer, to meditation and practices that connect us more fully with God, but they tend to be doing them sometimes in a congregation of faith, but more often in alternative locations.

POTTER: This meditation group in Boston is about as far from organized religion as you can get. The Humanist Community at Harvard is a home for non-believers, including atheists and agnostics, who do believe you don’t need God to be good.

Greg EpsteinGREG EPSTEIN (Harvard Humanist Chaplain and Author of Good Without God): The more important question to me, though, is not whether you can be good without God but what it means to be good in a world in which we don’t have a God to tell us what to do or to help us when we need help. What it means to take care of each other, what it means to be there for one another, what it means to live an ethical life when this is the only life that we have. We’re coming up with a new kind of community here to meet what is in a lot of ways a new kind of need.

POTTER: It’s a need that’s especially evident on campus. Younger Americans make up the largest group of the unaffiliated. Some grew up un-churched.

CHRIS STEDMAN (Associate Harvard Humanist Chaplain, Author of Faithiest): Religion just wasn’t a part of our lives. I was baptized, but it was more just a reason to get the family together and after that, we never really went back.

POTTER: Chris Stedman found religion on his own and joined an Evangelical church. But soon after, he discovered he was gay and eventually left.

Chris StedmanSTEDMAN: The grand irony of the situation is that I became an Evangelical Christian because I was looking for a community, a place to belong and I was looking for a way of making sense of injustice and suffering, of grappling with this idea of suffering. But the irony of it is that becoming an evangelical Christian increased the amount of suffering in my life and also sort of alienated me from others.

POTTER: Now a self-described atheist, Stedman discovered he missed the shared values and service opportunities the church provided, something he’s found again with the Humanists.

STEDMAN: I thought maybe, you know, helping build up non-religious communities would be a way to provide people with opportunities to be civically engaged; to be involved in interfaith dialogue efforts; to do community service; to, you know, be more involved in their communities, be more organized.

POTTER: The vast majority of people who describe their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular” are quite happy that way. Ninety percent say they’re not looking for a religion that would be right for them. And for churches, that’s a conundrum and a challenge.

Pastor Mark SandlinAs the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown, the number of Americans who call themselves Protestant has declined, for the first time slipping below 50 percent. At Vandalia Presbyterian in Greensboro, North Carolina, Pastor Mark Sandlin is well aware of how much has changed. So he spent his recent three-month sabbatical trying to understand why, by doing something he’d never done before. He quit going to church.

PASTOR MARK SANDLIN (Vandalia Presbyterian Church): Parts of it I didn’t miss. I wish I did. I really didn’t.

POTTER: That surprise you?

PASTOR SANDLIN: It surprised me very, very deeply. I was a happier person, and part of that was getting removed from the dogma, getting removed from what really is some judgmental-ness that goes on in churches at times. It made a lot of space for my spirituality to grow and some happiness to enter into that space. I think we need to do work on that in churches, to create better space and handle relationships in a healthier way.

PASTOR SANDLIN: (Preaching) We confess that we do wish to love everyone, and we do try to love everyone…

POTTER: Many churches recognize their survival is at stake if they can’t broaden their appeal. Some have changed the way they worship or their service times to fit today’s lifestyles, but ultimately, the role of the ordained pastor may need to change too, from leader to partner.

PASTOR SANDLIN: A lot of ministers are used to kind of being the final word and the one in charge. I think we‘ve got to find new ways of modeling what church looks like and if you look at the biblical text, I find a hard time seeing great hierarchies. I see more discipleship of equals going on, and I think we’ve got to learn how to do that within our churches.

POTTER: There’s no evidence that the unaffiliated tend to make their way back to church as they get older or have families. Kim Weeks and her husband are bringing up their two children without religion, while teaching them morality. She’s willing to let them go to church with their grandmothers—one of whom is a minister—but that’s about it.

WEEKS: I can’t imagine a scenario in which we would go back to church on a regular basis. I don’t feel, and I check in on this a lot, any sense of longing over not being in a church or the church. I just don’t miss it because, for a variety of reasons, it feels constricting.

PASTOR SANDLIN: I’m genuinely worried that the existing church won’t have much of a future 20, 30 years down the road. But in general I’m not worried. The folks that I’m in conversation with through this who consider themselves spiritual but they’re not going to church, why would I worry? I mean, they’re great people. They’re in their communities, they’re making a difference. I think there really is a space and an opportunity to be doing some ministry together.

POTTER: And why not be optimistic? The unaffiliated may not want to be in church but they’re not entirely hostile to religion. In fact, they mostly agree with believers that religious organizations strengthen communities and play an important role in helping the needy—some common ground, at least, in a changing world.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Deborah Potter in Greensboro, North Carolina.

  • Frank King

    “Organized religion”. Now there’s a nasty term that’ll turn off even the most spiritual person. I wrote an essay on the topic:

  • mike clark

    To Whom It May Concern:
    For the last few weeks each of your videos has a commercial auditorially superimposed. It is disconcerting, to say the least. Are you aware of this and is there anything you can do about it ?
    I would appreciate a response.
    Mike Clark

  • mike clark

    Forgive me for not adding this to my initial e-m.
    In the past month or more, when I have not been able to e-m the story. It seems as soon as I start to put in an e-m address, I lose the e-m box and the video restarts. Have any others mentioned this to you? Any ideas ?
    I await your reply to my 2 e-ms
    Mike Clark

  • Nancy D.

    People leave church for many reasons, but the ones I’ve met (and reasons I left) include discrimination. There are too many churches who discriminate based on sex (men in charge only) or are prejudice against gays. As a moral atheist, I can’t tolerate those who discriminate against women and gays.

  • Laurie B.

    I’m glad I stuck with the Episcopal church until I finally had my breakthrough encounter with God. It was years in the making. That experience, supported by the experiences of others in my church, helped me to develop a relationship with God today that I could not have imagined years ago. I think many people give up too soon, which makes me sad. It took commitment and hard work for me to get past my initial reactions (based on my limited, human perceptions) and see where God is leading me. I couldn’t have accomplished that alone.

    I’m thankful that so many wise souls before me created the meaningful and symbolic liturgy that draws me closer to God each time I participate–at least, when I’m able to surrender my baggage and open myself up, that is. I know people who’ve never bothered to explore what the symbolism means before giving up on “organized religion.” (As soon as any group assigns someone to pay the rent for the meeting space, it’s “organized,” so that descriptor is weak.)

    I hope that anyone looking for peace and joy and fellowship will seek a church with friends they can respect, admire, and learn from, while realizing that those friends are only human and will probably disappoint you in some way. You will disappoint them, too. But that’s not a good reason to give up on our relationships with God.


  • Rev. Paul Burdick

    As a theologian of a Scriptural Theology… the story of LOVE FREE OR DIE… represents the inside struggle of a gay man making a humanistic appeal for acceptance by the Anglican Church. Unfortunately, though a touching story, the conclusion of the story, in the State of New Hampshire and The Anglican Church Conference, allowed for the hearing, and the voting of accepting Gay Priests. This issue presumes that Rev. Robinson, has made this issue one for the church to “evolve” into acceptance. Number one, Evolution is not a process that the Bible agrees with. Number two, neither is the vote of the clergy whether to amend what it says. Theology, that is a Scriptural Theology, understands very well, that homosexual relations are contrary to the will of God, and is not a Scriptural lifestyle. It is not bigotry, nor is it hatred to say this, it is simply Scriptural. Any amendment to the sanctity of marriage to be anything other than one man and one woman, is simply off the ground of Scripture. Should foundations other than the Biblical authority be recognized, then that decisions enters into NON Biblical foundations. It enters into the risky gray of self justification for humanity and its many wayward routes. Biblical Theologians see their role as defending Scripture and to speak against sin. Homosexuality remains sin in the Bible, and should Rev Robinson want to find REAL Freedom, he should resolve to start his own Metropolitan Gay Church. Yet, the story applauds this journey of the Rev. Robinson and the Anglican Church as one of great courage and evolution. It is unfortunate that PBS will not present balance to this story. It is unfortunate that those of us that understanding the fullness of the Scriptures regarding this subject, are condescended and represented as something out of the context of Scripture. Is Scripture the enemy? Is THE CHURCH? The Oppressor is Scripture itself. The sad part of this story, is that the Scriptures were ignored by this council. The travesty of it is, sin must abound greatly in this sect of so called Christiandom. It is sad that the leadership fall into the heretical line of priests and clergy that sin while they also call themselves learned.

  • Hanley Heenan

    People do not cringe at organized baseball clubs or organized police forces etc etc. I am more worried about unorganized religion. What some people are really saying is that their experiences with church have been negative.That doesn’t mean ALL churches are bad. You don’t stop driving on the highways, just because you meet a few bad drivers along the way.

  • Laurie B

    Why didn’t you publish my comment yesterday for this page:

    Was it offensive in some way? I tried to write a thoughtful response from a church-goer’s perspective. Seems like you would want both perspectives here, but I guess not. What a shame to be so biased. I thought PBS was better than that.

  • Rob Caldwell

    To Rev. Paul Burdick,
    If your god teaches you that love between two people of the same sex is a sin, then your god is morally bankrupt. There are about 3000 gods in recorded history and not all of them command or condone hate. Pick another one and stop making excuses for your angry, hateful god.

    All 3000 have the same amount of evidence proving their existence, so there should be no problem moving your faith to another one that fits morally with a modern view and not the outdated opinions of 2000 year old, long dead, bigoted desert wanderers.
    Thanks a bunch.

  • Vanessa Ochs

    This coverage opened my eyes. What struck me in particular was the complaint that religious institutions are judgmental. That may well be the case, but in my fieldwork I have seen that just as often, those who are visiting churches and synagogues from time to time (and are not deeply rooted in those communities), often BELIEVE they are being judged by congregants, clergy, and God alike when they are, in fact, not made to feel really welcome.

  • john cunningham

    god gives us inalinable rights, why do religions want to take those free agencys away? they seem to be more into control, and the money they can get from people dening forgivness. we have this physical body to expirence life, true some of our decissions have not been the best, but we learn and go on. none of the items, names or situations of the bible fit the time period they were to be of, the bible proves that that time period was not so good to the people. the wars the problems religion has time after time proven to cause, rather then true love, forgivness or understanding that education is what provides progress, we do not need to live in the past. live today and look to the future that we and our childern will have a better life then what is in the bible.

  • Nancy Connolly

    More young people today refer to themselves as spiritual, but not religious. There are a number of unaffiliated groups of individuals that don’t believe in God, but yet continue to live an ethical and spiritual life. I was surprised Pastor Mark Sandlin, through an experiment, decided not to go to church for a month and didn’t miss it. I agree with his assessment that in 30 years, the traditional church may no longer exist. It is sad to think that people don’t believe in God and have chosen a different path because they either felt rejected or judged by members of the church.

  • AtheitsAreUs

    I found that reading the bible, studying christian history (including learning ancient greek, some latin and hebrew), attending church, teaching Sunday school, and getting involved with my church made me realize better than ever that the god belief is an illusion we create, each of us, in order to have some illusion of control and order. Morals, ethics, integrity and setting the example can be done no matter what we believe, or do not believe. I am an atheist now, and I live more responsibly, more balanced, and maintain integrity more easily without the biblical guide concept that is outdated and leans towards ostracism of those who do not fit a “christian lifestyle”. I have also found I am openly “hated” as an out atheist by christians more than I ever thought I would be. Wen I was a christian I believed the christian ommitment wa all about love,for my fellow man, and for god. As an Atheist I still believe in loving my fellow man, but I see more hate in the religious community than I did when I was a christian. I now think (and see every day) how much willful blindness christians must maintain in themselves in order to maintain their beliefs. Making the decision that god cannot be real opened my eyes in thousands of ways I could not have known. It was one of the best things I could have done for myself. There is more love in me, more life, more awareness, more curiosity, more openness, more desire to BE. For he irst time I understand what the “born again” movementwas all about, unfortunatly its constriicted and restricted into what “being christian” is, instead of what “BEING” is.

  • Roger Wolsey

    I’m not as allergic to the term organized. I’m spiritual and religious. Here’s an essay that I wrote:

  • Roger Wolsey

    Agreed. Organized religion can do a lot of good in the world because they’re organized.

  • Nicholas

    There are reasons that people are moving away from Organized Religion. Unorganized Religion is not dangerous, we create our own path to the Divine, whether that be one God, Many Gods, or no Gods.

    Some organized Religions do good, but the ones that are in the news don’t do much good for the world at all.

    I grew up in organized Religion, but could not accept how they had views that are not up to date, so to speak.