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Americans: Undecided about God?

By Eric Weiner

The New York Times

Published: Sunday, Dec. 18 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

In this Sept. 9, 2010 photo, cars drive by a billboard that reads " Don't believe in God? Join the club" in Oklahoma City.

Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

The holidays were some sort of mugger, or overly enthusiastic lover — and so it's time to stick a thermometer deep in our souls and take our spiritual temperature (between trips to the mall, of course).

For some of us, the season affords an opportunity to reconnect with our religious heritage. For others, myself included, it's a time to shake our heads over the sad state of our national conversation about God, and wish there were another way.

For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers on one hand and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?

The rest of us, it turns out, constitute the nation's fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones, the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones.

Apparently, a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God. On average 93 percent of those surveyed say they believe in God or a higher power; this holds true for most Nones — just 7 percent of whom describe themselves as atheists, according to a survey by Trinity College.

Nones are the undecided of the religious world. We drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah to, yes, Catholicism and Judaism.

Why the rise of the Nones? David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame and Robert Putnam of the Harvard Kennedy School think politics is to blame. Their idea is that we've mixed politics and religion so completely that many simply opt out of both; apparently they are reluctant to claim a religious affiliation because they don't want the political one that comes along with it.

We are more religiously polarized than ever. In my secular, urban and urbane world, God is rarely spoken of, except in mocking, derisive tones. It is acceptable to cite the latest academic study on, say, happiness or, even better, whip out a brain scan, but God? He is for suckers, and Republicans.

I used to be that way, too, until a health scare and the onset of middle age created a crisis of faith, and I ventured to the other side. I quickly discovered that I didn't fit there, either. I am not a True Believer. I am a rationalist. I believe the Enlightenment was a very good thing, and don't wish to return to an age of raw superstition.

We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.

Nones don't get hung up on whether a religion is "true" or not, and instead subscribe to William James' maxim that "truth is what works." If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension "true." (We believe that G.K. Chesterton got it right when he said: "It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.")

By that measure, there is very little "good religion" out there. Put bluntly: God is not a lot of fun these days. Many of us don't view religion so generously. All we see is an angry God. He is constantly judging and smiting, and so are his followers. No wonder so many Americans are enamored of the Dalai Lama. He laughs, often and well.

Precious few of our religious leaders laugh. They shout. God is not an exclamation point, though. He is, at his best, a semicolon, connecting people, and generating what Aldous Huxley called "human grace." Somewhere along the way, we've lost sight of this.

Religion and politics, though often spoken about in the same breath, are, of course, fundamentally different. Politics is, by definition, a public activity. Though religion contains large public components, it is at core a personal affair. It is the relationship we have with ourselves or, as the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, "What the individual does with his solitariness." There lies the problem: How to talk about the private nature of religion publicly.

What is the solution? The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.

We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Jobs' creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.

Eric Weiner is the author, most recently, of "Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine."

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