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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.

They're uninterested in trying to talk a diverse set of friends into a shared viewpoint in a culture that celebrates an idea that all truths are equally valid, he says. Personal experience, personal authority matter most. Hence scripture and tradition are quaint, irrelevant, artifacts. Instead of followers of Jesus, they're followers of 5,000 unseen "friends" on Facebook or Twitter.

"I think Jesus is getting lost in the data stream," says Kinnaman, president of the Christian research firm The Barna Group.

"'Spiritual' is the hipster way of saying they're concerned with social injustice. But if you strip away the hipster factor," says Kinnaman, "I'd estimate seven in 10 young adults would say they don't see much influence of God or religion in their lives at all."

This trend may have been leaving subtle tracks for years.

The hot religion statistical trend of recent decades was the rise of the "Nones" — the people who checked "no religious identity" on the American Religious Identification Surveys (ARIS). The Nones numbers leapt from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

The So Whats appear to be a growing secular subset. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's Landscape Survey dug in to the Nones to discover that nearly half said they believed "nothing in particular."

Neither raging atheist scientist Richard Dawkins, author of numerous best-sellers such as "The God Delusion," nor televangelist Pat Robertson would understand this fuzzy stance, says Barry Kosmin, co-author of the ARIS and director Institute for the Study of Secularism at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.

"But a lot of these people are concerned more with the tangible, the real stuff like mortgages or their favorite football team or the everyday world," Kosmin says.

The Rev. Ema Drouillard, who specializes in San Francisco-area non-denominational ceremonies, said in 2001 about 30 percent of her clients refused any reference to religion at their weddings.

A decade later, 80 percent of her clients choose her carefully God-free ceremony. The only faith they pledge is in each other. No higher authority is consulted as they vow to walk beside each other, "offering courage and hope through all your endeavors."

"A lot of people just aren't on any spiritual path. They say, 'We are just focusing on the party.' Or they have no language for their spirituality so they just leave it out," Drouillard says.

When church historian Diana Butler Bass researched her upcoming book, "Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening," she found the So Whats are "a growing category."

Says Bass, "We can't underestimate the power of the collapse of institutional religion in the first 10 years of this century. It's freed so many people to say they don't really care. They don't miss rituals or traditions they may never have had anyway."

For them, the Almighty is off the radar, like some tiny foreign country they know exists but never think about.

"God? Purpose? You don't need an opinion on those things to function," says Suhas Sreedhar, 26, a engineer working in a computer company in Manhattan.

Raised in New Jersey by his devoutly Hindu mother and staunchly atheist father, "I was saturated with both views and after a while, I realized I don't need either perspective.

"There may be unanswerable questions that could be cool or fascinating. Speculating on them is a fun parlor game, but they don't shed any meaning on my life," Sreedhar says.

This is a disaster for Christians, says Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research,

"If you're not worried about heaven, you won't notice or care if Jesus is essential your salvation. You're not thinking about any consequences," McConnell says.

But Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, Memphis, is not so alarmed. He sees people behaving spiritually — caring for each other and the world — even if they skip the label.

"Judaism teaches that spirituality is practical. When you see something that is broken, fix it. When you find something that is lost, return it. When you see something that needs to be done, do it. In that way you will be taking care of the world and fulfilling your role as God's partner, know it or not," the rabbi says.

"Spirituality is about the relational — whether you are relating to God, to others, to the world or to yourself. I do believe most people see life more as a mystery than as a machine. I would call that God even if they don't," Greenstein says.

Bill Dohm, who lives in Broad Run, Va., is more inclined to talk about goodness than Godliness.

"I try to live my life and do the best I can. I figure if I do good, good things will happen. I'm not at all worried about the afterlife. How could they turn me down when people do whatever they want during the week. They go to church all the time then they come home and they gamble, they party, they use God's name in vain.

"So either it will be like a switch turned off and it's done or, if there is a heaven, I'm going have to do some talking to get up there."

Until then, every week, he faithfully drives to a Catholic church where, he says, "I drop off my mother-in-law, get back in the car and drive home."

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