Losing My Religion

Last year, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public life released results from a wide-reaching survey on American religious life that showed that “unaffiliated”—or none of the above—was the fastest growing religious sector.  Earlier this year, the Pew Forum followed up on that survey to inquire about Americans who have changed religions at least once during their lives.

They found that about one half of all Americans have changed religions at least once in their life, an all-time high.  And about two-thirds of religion switchers who were raised either Protestant or Catholic have changed at least twice.  We have long been a mobile country, moving across the country for new opportunities.  Now we have become a religiously mobile country too.

The good folks at the Pew Forum did some digging to find out why people left their childhood religions.  Popular reasons given by former Catholics include: “stopped believing in the religion’s teachings,” “unhappy with teachings on abortion/homosexuality,” “spiritual needs not being met,” and “just gradually drifted away from the religion.” Religion switching Protestants gave similar reasons, though they seemed less effected by a change in specific doctrinal beliefs than a felt change in their personal spiritual needs.  Those who grew up without a religious affiliation, but who found one, commonly said that their “spiritual needs were not being met.”
A newfound belief that “modern science proves that religion is just superstition” was not a major factor for those leaving organized religion.

Added to the Pew Forum’s news is news that the Southern Baptist Conference, that bulwark evangelical denomination, is seeing a drop in membership and in new baptisms.  Tens of thousands of churches, mostly rural, are expected to close their doors over the next twenty years.  What’s more, the Pew Forum found that many evangelicals now believe things evangelicals don’t believe, like “people of other faiths go to Heaven.”  When faced with this result, they were sure something was wrong with their results.  But when they double checked—and added a control question, “do atheists go to heaven?”—the results were the same.  Leading evangelicals have now started to ask if evangelicalism is facing a long decline, or even a collapse.

What do these trends tell us?  For one, and we won’t dwell on this one this morning, a quiet universalism is sweeping American religious life.  But two, whether it’s switching between Catholic and Protestant, from one flavor of Protestantism to another, or to no religious affiliation, switching religions is becoming a key part of the American religious journey.

Switching religions has certainly been a primary part of my own religious journey.  I was raised Methodistecostal—my own little word for tongue-talking Methodists—in a middle of the road United Methodist church that had traditional worship Sunday morning but whose Pentecostal-style Sunday evening worship services often included prayers for faith healing and speaking in tongues.  We saw ourselves as a faithful remnant of true believers in a too-liberal denomination.  When evangelical celebrities would blow through town, we’d often go to their large rallies at mega-churches and wish that we could bottle up some of the energy of those experiences to bring home with us.

Being a teenage Methodistecostal took an emotional toll.  The ups and downs of the Pentecostal-style worship services, with the opening an hour of repetitive prom songs to Jesus and the closing a hard core altar call that promised that this time I could get past the sin in my life that kept me from experiencing life as a constant “church camp high.”  If you ever want to get a roomful of evangelical teenagers to come forward for an altar call, just preach a little about the sin of lust.  It gets them to walk the aisle every time.

A vicious church split over theological differences between the traditionalists and those favoring Pentecostal-style worship threw me for a loop.  I spent some time at Assemblies of God churches—the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination—in hopes that finding a church where speaking in tongues and faith healing was the norm on Sunday mornings, not just a hush hush affair on Sunday nights, would strengthen my faith and remove my growing doubts.

It didn’t.  After a Saturday afternoon witnessing trip where the high school youth were bussed off to a suburban housing addition, given a handful of tracts, and told to go door to door trying to “save” people, me and a friend were called forward at Sunday morning worship to “witness” about our experience.  The preacher handed me the mic.  I started to talk about how a lot of people these days didn’t want to witness to their neighbors about Christ.  I knew this to be true because my friend and I had done exactly zero witnessing for Christ.  We knocked on the first door, our tracts in hand, and to our great relief no one came to the door.  We left a tract on the ground next to the door and waited out our time until witnessing time was done.  But as soon as I started to talk about witnessing for Christ—even just saying that some people don’t want to do it—the amen’s rang forth from the congregation.  People leaned forward.  It became immediately clear to me that I was expected to preach an impromptu mini-sermon about our many successes saving people during our afternoon adventure as door-to-door Jesus salesmen.  I knew that nothing I could say about it would both true and welcomed by the congregation.  I handed the mic back to the preacher and waited for permission to go back to my pew.

I eventually found my way back to a Methodist church, one that more openly mixed traditional worship with the more Pentecostal-style elements that had become so controversial at our original church.  I became a religion major at the local Methodist liberal arts college, and my fellow evangelical Methodists started to warn me about certain liberal professors.  An alumni even gave me a tour of campus pointing out which demons had influence over which buildings.  The demon of suicide and depression had dominion over the sixth room on the sixth floor of a dorm where a girl had either committed or attempted suicide once, so he had heard.  The demon of doubt was over the school of religion.  And the demon of homosexuality was over the dance school.  It was my job to banish these demons where he had failed and lead a campus-wide revival.  I was given the names of liberal Methodist administrators who were dead set against this happening.  It seemed like a lot to take on, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

After my parents left my dorm room on move-in day, I sat there on my bed and made a promise to myself that was completely out of character for a young evangelical.  I was going to scour my beliefs, search through them, and find out where they came from.  Who was the first one to believe the things I had been taught to believe?  Did they have good cause? Were they good people?  Could each of my beliefs be traced back to Jesus or were they hollow traditions, passed on from generation to generation without warrant?

I ended up taking my introductory Bible class with one of the more liberal of the religion professors.  And the most shocking thing happened.

He didn’t blatantly push his liberal agenda.  He would ask leading questions now and again—but with a self-deprecating smirk that made it more of a joke than an attempt to put one over on you.  And, week after week, he was kind to us.  Patient.  This was not supposed to happen.  Liberals were supposed to be sneaky, evil creatures trying at every moment to convert you to godless secular humanism.  This guy was clearly none of that.  He clearly practiced some of the fruit of the spirit—peace, patience, and kindness—and his faith was obviously important to him, not merely an excuse to not believe what he was supposed to believe.

It wasn’t long after that that two friends in the Christian fraternity I belonged to came out of the closet, and I found myself an evangelical with gay friends.  I made friends with other recovering evangelicals, and talked for hours about the abuses we had seen and suffered, about how we were put under undue pressure to save everyone, about how prayers for healing were hardly ever answered, and how we still feared hell sometimes even though we weren’t sure we believed in it anymore.

By the time I went off to seminary with intentions of become a Methodist minister, I was a Universalist who no longer believed a loving God would send people to hell, though I could scarce admit that to myself out loud.  By the time I left seminary, I was a Unitarian too, who doubted that Jesus was uniquely divine in a way that other seminal religious geniuses were not, though I could scarce admit that to myself out loud either.  A year later, we moved to Atlanta, just around the corner on Clairmont.  I read the Purposes & Principles online, saw that worship didn’t start until 11:30 then, and came to UUCA to find out what it was like to worship with others who believed what I believed—out loud.  I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist ever since.

A different story of religious change is told by William Lobdell, a former religion writer for the LA Times, in his book Losing My Religion. Faced with a recent divorce, a pregnant girlfriend, ill health, and a dead end career, Lobdell felt he had screwed up his life at age 27.  After the birth of his son and a Las Vegas drive -through wedding to the mother of his child, Lobdell confessed his miseries to a friend.  “You need God,” his friend said.  “That’s what’s missing in your life.”
His friend pointed him to a local mega-church.  Worship was led by a rock band and a dynamic young preacher who made Christianity come alive for him.  He encountered a God who loved him perfectly, a welcome change from the God of his childhood church who, like his father, loved conditionally based on whether or not you obeyed the rules, a God he had rejected as a teenager.  Writes Lobdell:
I eagerly lapped up the unconditional love.  [This God] was a rock upon which I could build my life.  He laid out exactly what kind of life to live in His Holy Book.  It was a relief to have someone else in charge of my life. (p12)

He began to go to church every week and strove to become a better husband and father.  At the end of an emotional weekend men’s retreat, he gave his life to Christ and had a “born again” experience, with a vision of a warm, glowing light filling his body.  He felt like a new person, and he did everything in his power to live like it too, though it would be some time before he had the courage to come out of the closet as an evangelical to his friends at the paper he wrote for, fearing their disdain.

He longed to find a way to unite his newfound faith and his career in journalism.  He began to write an occasional religion column featuring inspiring stories of faith in action from a variety of faith traditions.  He outgrew the Christianity Lite of his mega-church home, became a  Presbyterian for several years, and later began the long process of converting to Roman Catholicism, his wife’s childhood faith.  He loved the beauty of the ceremony and ritual, the certainty of the creeds and traditions, even those he doubted, and if he converted, he and his wife could be married in the Church and no longer be considered by Church law to be living in sin, though they had been married in the eyes of the state for many years.

Lobdell’s religion writing moved him to the LA Times, where he wrote not only about inspiring stories of faith but also about stories of corruption and malfeasance.  As he was finishing his preparations to convert to Roman Catholicism, he was confronted by the story of a popular local priest accused of molesting children while he was the principle of a Catholic high school.  The story, while upsetting, did not effect his faith.  He wrote it off as one bad apple.

But then he watched the church hierarchy support this molesting priest, pressure victims to be silent, and deny all wrongdoing.  He decided, on Good Friday, to postpone his scheduled Easter baptism into Roman Catholicism.  One story of cover up became two, and two became dozens.  Over the next couple of years, the widespread scope of priestly sexual abuse would become national news.  Because of his stories about the trail of abuse, Lobdell came persona non grata in many Catholic circles, whose rank and file decided to support their priests no matter what, offering them jobs when they were removed from office or paying their bail.  Some parents even blamed their children for “seducing” the priests.  His faith died as he heard story after story, in city after city, of clergy sexual abuse and saw firsthand the responses of the people in the pews and the powers-that-be.

Today, Lobdell counts himself a happy agnostic.  He lost his faith on the religion beat, but he has moved past bitterness and anger to a place of quiet gratitude.

There is no one reason people lose their religion.  For an unfortunate few, corruption and abuse—and not just spiritual abuse—crush their faith even as they try to hold on to it as a source of comfort and guidance in the midst of terrible times.  They are the victims of “soul killers” who rely on institutional privilege to prey upon those in their care.  In the Pew study, a significant minority of former Catholics cited the clergy sexual abuse scandal as a reason for leaving, though such abuse is by no means limited to the Roman Catholic church.

But others leave for other reasons.  Simply drifting away is common, perhaps because of religious communities who have failed the test of relevance, or because an interdependent web of relationships never formed, or was quietly broken by a string of small hypocrisies that made it easy to stay in bed this Sunday, and then another and another.
Others find themselves at odds with the beliefs of their communities and find their doubts and questions unwelcome.  Maybe their faith has even died.  The death of a god is a tough story to live through.  We know from the world’s mythologies that many gods die.  Some rise from the dead to new glory.  Others come back to life to find they have been demoted to saints in a religion that was not their own.  And other gods die obscure deaths, forgotten by their worshippers.  Perhaps stories of the deaths of gods are so common because the experience of losing faith in a god is such a common human experience, no matter your religion.
And then there are those who grew up without a religious affiliation who find themselves in need of spiritual structure, a place to doubt the doubts they were raised with, to find a faith that fits.
We know that at least 80% of Unitarian Universalists come from other faith traditions, or from no faith at all.  If you did not grow up Unitarian Universalist, could you raise your hand.  …So the numbers ring true here this morning.
Why do people come to Unitarian Universalism?  In our Exploring UUCA class, an afternoon workshop for those thinking about joining the congregation, we have an ice breaker we do called “20 Reasons.”  Participants in the class are given a list of 20 common reasons why people choose a new faith community and are asked to choose their favorite five and discuss them in small groups.
If the class is large enough, almost every reason gets chosen at least once.  They are all good reasons, but there are some choices that almost always get a lot of votes:
•    I have a need for greater spiritual direction in my life.
•    I want to make new friends and build community.
•    I want to be a part of a group of people who share my views.
•    And: I want to become a better person.

What wonderful reasons for joining a faith community!  And how wonderful that dozens of people each year come here to find that this is the religious community for them.

And on the whole we stick around.  Evangelical churches report that they lose somewhere between ten and twelve percent of their members each year, half of those to moves out of town and the rest to deaths and other reasons.  Over the last two years the number of people who have left UUCA has been far less.  As Unitarian Universalists, we have sometimes fashioned ourselves as a way station where the religiously disaffected blow in and out like so much spiritual tumbleweed. Or, put differently, that we are the last stop between Sunday mornings at the Methodist church and Sunday mornings at the golf course.  But that is not a true story about Unitarian Universalism, at least not in this congregation.

So what is it about Unitarian Universalism that keeps us coming back around?  Perhaps it’s that this is a safe place to speak openly andhonestly about our doubts, and our dreams.  Perhaps it’s because this is a place where we can build community—within the bonds of a chosen covenant—with others who share our religious views, and still also delight in conversations with those who disagree.  Or because this is a place where those who grew up without a religious upbringing can wade into spiritual waters for the first time.  Or because the wisdom of all religions, and of none, is welcome here for any who would learn from them.
And for those of you who come here wounded from religious abuse, let it be this.  Let this be a place where you can rage against what you suffered, for a time, and where you can be bitter about it, for a season.  But know that true religious freedom lies on the other side of rage and bitterness, that healing comes when we openly confront our past and, with the support of others who care about us, find new sources of spiritual inspiration, community, and service.  May this community be such a place of healing and welcome for all who come here seeking.