Many say 'So what?' to religion, atheism

By Cathy Lynn Grossman

USA Today

Published: Thursday, Dec. 29 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Notre Dame cathedral is seen under the snow in Paris, Wednesday Dec. 8, 2010.

Associated Press

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When Ben Helton signed up for an online dating service, under "religion" he called himself "spiritually apathetic."

Sunday mornings, when Bill Dohm turns his eyes toward heaven, he's just checking the weather so he can fly his 1946 Aeronca Champ two-seater plane.

Helton, 28, and Dohm, 54, aren't atheists, either. They simply shrug off God, religion, heaven or the ever-trendy search-for-meaning and/or purpose.

Their attitude could be summed up as "So what?"

"The real dirty little secret of religiosity in America is that there are so many people for whom spiritual interest, thinking about ultimate questions, is minimal," says Mark Silk, professor of religion and public life at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.

As Christmas Day glides by — all gilt, no substance — for many, clergy and religion experts are dismayed. They fear for souls' salvation and for the common threads of faith snapping in society. Others see no such dire consequences to a more openly secular America as people not only fess up to being faithless but admit they're skipping out on spiritual, the cool default word of the decade, as well.

Only now, however, are they turning up in the statistical stream. Researchers have begun asking the kind of nuanced questions that reveal just how big the So What set might be:

44 percent told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking "eternal wisdom," and 19 percent said "it's useless to search for meaning."

46 percent told a 2011 survey by Nashville-based evangelical research agency, LifeWay Research, they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.

28 percent told LifeWay "it's not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose." And 18 percent scoffed that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.

6.3 percent of Americans turned up on Pew Forum's 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Hemant Mehta, who blogs as The Friendly Atheist, calls them the "apatheists"

The Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., calls them honest.

"We live in a society today where it is acceptable now to say that they have no spiritual curiosity. At almost any other time in history, that would have been unacceptable," Budde says.

She finds this "very sad because the whole purpose of faith is to be a source of guidance, strength and perspective in difficult times. To be human is to have a sense of purpose, an awareness that our life is an utterly unique expression of creation and we want to live it with meaning, grace and beauty."

Nah, Helton says.

Helton, a high school band teacher in Chicago, only goes to the Catholic Church of his youth to hear his mother sing in the choir.

His mind led him away. The more Helton read evolutionary psychology and neuro-psychology, he says, the more it seemed to him, "We might as well be cars. That, to me, makes more sense than believing what you can't see."

Ashley Gerst, 27, a 3-D animator and filmmaker in New York, shifts between "leaning to the atheist and leaning toward apathy."

"I would just like to see more people admit they don't believe. The only thing I'm pushy about is I don't want to be pushed. I don't want to change others and I don't want to debate my view," Gerst says.

Most So Whats are like Gerst, says David Kinnaman, author of "You Lost Me" on young adults drifting away from church.

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