In changing world, skeptics are the new religious
By Philip Clayton
Except for presidential candidates and some parts of the Bible Belt,
the days when church membership was necessary for social acceptance are
long gone. Many view religion as suspect or superfluous or both.
As the dean of a theology school, the question is of high interest to
me, and I think I know the answer.
In my experience, most skeptics today are not dogmatic
atheists or jaded cynics, though some are. Most are seekers. They include
Caltech geeks but also a large swath of people who — looking at our improved
scientific understanding, changing social norms and increasingly pluralistic
religious culture — have decided that many rigid doctrines of the
past are just no longer credible.
Critically, the majority of North America’s young people are also
squarely in the doubters’ camp, even the two-thirds under 30 who
still identify with a religion. A groundbreaking survey by LifeWay Christian
Resources found that an astounding 72 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds
now consider themselves “more spiritual than religious.”
While these young people are no longer members of traditional churches,
they may still show up at a Sunday service now and then, looking somewhat
awkward. They may pull away when pastors proclaim Jesus is the only possible
way to be saved. But they are seeking, and they are finding others like
themselves, and together they are beginning to change the face of religion.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that skeptics are the new religious.
The Christianity they espouse is about doing and being,
not creeds and orthodoxy. It’s about making space to talk and question openly.
These groups focus on a living quest rather than a frozen belief. They
acknowledge an awe and ecstasy bubbling up from God-knows-where that
empowers them to live by the words of that radical first-century rabbi: “Love
your neighbour,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Do
unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Many of our students are among these new emerging leaders. They minister
to seekers ranging from Caltech brainiacs to recently released felons
and just about everyone in between.
Mainline churches are also joining the movement. All Saints Episcopal
Church in Pasadena, Calif., offers inspirational Sunday services in its
beautiful sanctuary, but also includes a myriad of groups engaged in
social justice and compassion throughout the city. Their vigorous weekly
forums include speakers from a broad range of religious and activist
The same trends are emerging in other faiths as well. One
of my former students, an atheist who took theology classes (not as uncommon
as you might imagine), is now the Humanist chaplain for Harvard University.
He’s founded a thriving community that enjoys probing discussions
as well as significant humanitarian and interfaith work.
The East Side Jews of Los Angeles bill themselves as “an irreverent,
non-denominational collective for Jews with confused identities.” At
one meeting the group invited Jewish and Muslim comics and professors
from our Claremont Lincoln University consortium to take questions from
the membership and their invited Muslim guests. The discussion ranged
from hilarious to deeply spiritual, and participants were clearly moved.
So the answer raised by the Caltech debate is no, science
has not refuted religion. Science has refuted a great deal of dogma and
doctrine, but it hasn’t stifled the quest for meaning. It hasn’t diminished
the way certain simple teachings intrigue us and inspire us to action.
And it hasn’t eliminated our desire to build that action into spiritual
communities of investigation and change.
I see an immense yearning for these kinds of communities.
And while it may sound strange for a seminary dean not to be bothered
when these skeptics chuck traditional beliefs, I have to agree that doctrinal
religion is often too rigid, too antithetical to the love and meaning
that people are seeking. If science has refuted anything, it’s
the notion that any institution can own the absolute truth about God.
I’d challenge those who still believe religion is only suspect or superfluous. You are operating with stereotypes left over from the past. Something amazing is happening in religion, and it’s time to get involved again.
Clayton is the dean of Claremont School of Theology, a member of the Claremont Lincoln University consortium, where he is provost. His most recent book is The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith, which he co-authored with Steven Knapp.