Religious belonging

Rev. Philip Thompson, St. Pius X Catholic Church, Cedar Rapids
Rev. Philip Thompson, St. Pius X Catholic Church, Cedar Rapids

Rabbi Todd Thalblum, Cedar Rapids Temple Judah

Connie Ryan Terrell, Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, executive director

Rev. Royce Phillips, Tabernacle Baptist Church, Coralville

Rev. Howard Chapman, First Presbyterian Church, Marion

Professor Harold Kasimow, Grinnell College

Editor’s note: A recent Pew Research Center survey found that the number of Americans who indicated their religious preference as “none” increased from 8 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2012. Yet more than 90 percent of those surveyed say they believe in God or a “higher power.”

The Gazette Editorial Board regards religion and its impact on society and our communities an important public issues. We invited a cross section of Eastern Iowa clergy and academic specialists in religion to tell us what they make of the survey’s results, whether the trend is representative of what they’ve observed locally, and what significance the changes hold for our country.

Rev. Howard Chapman, Presbyterian

As a pastor, naturally I find the results of the Pew Research survey troubling. But as I look back over history, it is heartening to note that over the centuries, there have been ups and downs in religious interest and involvement. There have always been times of spiritual apathy followed by times of renewal.

Such trends can be traced all the way back to Biblical times. The prophet Micah, writing some 700 years before Jesus was born, asks in chapter 6, verse 6, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” He then goes on to describe elaborate ritual and sacrifice, implying how useless it all would be. The prophet is pulling away from long-established religious practices, regarding them all as a waste of time.

If the Pew Research team had asked Micah, he might well have answered “none” under religious preferences. But the prophet goes on to say in 6:8 that what God does want from us is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

When God’s people become more focused on worship rituals, doctrinal debates and moral judgments, the life and energy is drained from religious institutions. When we focus instead on helping those who are down trodden find justice, showing compassion to those in need, and seeking the good of others rather than ourselves, then we have something to offer that is genuine and appealing.

This all might seem abstract and vague, but over the last few weeks, the media has held up two concrete examples of those who do justice, love kindness and walk humbly. Both Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis questioned and criticized established structures. Both have been deeply concerned about the plight of the poor and oppressed. Both have showed generosity and compassion to those less fortunate. And both of these men remained humble and gracious, even after receiving the admiration of billions.

And so while religious life in our country appears to be undergoing a transformation, I remain hopeful. I believe that what Mandela and Pope Francis have done on a worldwide scale can be lived out in our own neighborhoods. My prayer is that we will follow the examples of these two men and do what God really wants us to do.

If we can do that, not much else will matter.

The Rev. Dr. Howard Chapman is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Marion. Comments:

Connie Ryan Terrell, Interfaith Alliance

The march of the “Nones” has been a topic of conversation in religious circles since the Pew Research Center released its findings in 2012. Most people understand its relevance to houses of worship and their concern about the sustainability of their faith. However, “none” does not necessarily mean lack of faith or spirituality. Most “Nones” simply do not affiliate with a particular religious institution.

Delving deeper into the Pew study, it finds that the percentage of “Nones” increases with younger generations. While 20% percent of the respondents overall answer “none” to the question of religious affiliation, the number jumps to one third for those respondents under 30.

There are also political implications. The “Nones” in general are more liberal on social issues. Three-fourths welcome marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples and are supportive of women’s reproductive rights. With the growing number of younger “Nones,” the power of the conservative movement as we know it will decrease.

I attribute some of the increase in the younger “Nones” to growing up in a changing society. Younger “Nones” experienced life in a world increasingly open and welcoming. Certainly, they have witnessed and perhaps experienced intolerance and bigotry, but it is increasingly unacceptable for prejudice to be perpetuated and the younger generation is unafraid to speak out against it.

However, in the extreme corners of religion, intolerance still flourishes. Conservative clergy speak on behalf of a god who presumably sits in judgment of people based on their sexuality or who demands limiting women’s reproductive rights. The message rings false to the “Nones,” particularly those under 30. The younger generation simply no longer accepts these messages as “gospel”.

Unfortunately, some conservative clergy often speak arrogantly on behalf of all people of faith, and that falsehood is often propagated by the media. Religious communities get lumped together and a growing number of “Nones” have become fed up with the institutions across the board.

So what is the lesson to take away? Faith is not going away. In fact, overall the numbers tell us it remains strong to this day. However, religious communities must rethink engagement of those under 30. The younger generation wants the focus to be on relationships and expects social issues to be discussed with accuracy, openness and civility, not rhetoric. The message must be about God’s love for all, rather than judgment. When “all means all”, the pew has a much more welcoming feel.

Connie Ryan Terrell is Executive Director, Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. Comments:

Rabbi Todd Thalblum, Temple Judah

This past October, the Pew Research Center announced the results of another survey, one focused on Jewish Americans, which bore similar results to the one that spurred this discussion.

These numbers suggest that many Americans are moving away from organized religion. Within the Jewish community here in the United States, this trend illustrates our successful assimilation and integration into American society; originally, our synagogues and community centers were the places where we felt safe and accepted. Jews belonged out of necessity because anti-Semitism and persecution were segregating.

According to a Time magazine poll in August 2010, however, Jews in America are now seen as the most respected religious group. We have reached a level of acceptance in this country that we have never before seen, so membership in synagogues is less essential.

Even as Jews have moved away from synagogue membership and observance, though, they haven’t turned their backs on the core teachings of Judaism, as other data in the October survey suggest. These include a commitment to equality, social justice, and care of the Earth, as well as a belief in God. Our core values remain Jewish.

As the rabbi of Cedar Rapids, my experience is primarily with our synagogue community. However, I routinely get called to the bedside of Jews who haven’t been inside a synagogue in decades, and I’m often asked to officiate at the funerals of those who haven’t affiliated in years but have requested a Jewish burial. The belief that there is something greater than us, that there is some Power that is Eternal, is a great comfort to many people. It brings a sense of calm and peace during times that seem out of our control.

Judaism has a wide range of accepted beliefs that fit within the framework of monotheism. The most essential teaching about God, however, is that God exists and God is One. The fact that so many Jews believe, regardless of their affiliation, is encouraging. The challenge for us now, is finding the right way to reach them.

Rabbi Todd Thalblum is rabbi at Temple Judah, Cedar Rapids. Comments:


Ever since John Winthrop led thousands of Puritans to the shores of Massachusetts Bay nearly 400 years ago, this country has had a great interest in faith. The Pilgrims came a decade before seeking religious freedom. Millions more followed during the next many decades.

There is no question faith is deeply ingrained in the history of this nation. After the Puritans came the Quakers, the Catholics, the Baptists, the Anglicans, and a whole universe of many others.

Nearly 200 years after Winthrop, John Leland and the Virginia Baptists, as well as many others, insisted that this new Constitution include provisions, or amendments, that allowed the freedom of religion, which became amendment No. 1. This country became the bastion of religious freedom.

With freedom, though, comes responsibility. The freedom we have, often earned with great sacrifice by men and women who have gone before us, requires vigilance, maintenance, and continual effort. It is one thing to claim a religion and quite another to live out a faith. In our diverse world, we allow the belief in nothing or no one to be a part of that world. Some would call that atheism or “no religious preference.” According to the polls, that sect is increasing in the past 20 years. I have seen the evidence of those numbers firsthand on many occasions. It seems as though so many more people have little or no connection to any faith tradition. So few have been raised in church as compared to just a few years ago. So many attitudes seem to think that this is a positive change. I do not agree.

Faith is what makes us “good.” It gives us a spiritual compass to make our decisions. It restrains our vices and our extremes. It creates our ethics and generates our compassion. From it we learn who our “neighbor” is and how to treat him. It gives us friends to celebrate with, or to mourn with. It provides for hope, and love, and the future. And it is of little value if we can “believe” it, but not “practice” it.

When Paul of Tarsus stood on Mars Hill in Athens, their version of the Pentacrest, he said words to the effect that the Athenians were very religious. That had an idol to every god conceivable. They even had an idol to the unknown god, in case they had left one out.

That God, Paul said, let me tell you about Him.

The Rev. Royce Phillips is pastor, Tabernacle Baptist Church, Coralville. Comments:

Rev. Philip Thompson, St. Pius X Catholic

Studies show that the number of people attending church continues to decline. Many of these people consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Some people refer to this as believing without belonging.

I believe that this phenomenon reflects an American attitude of “rugged individualism,” where through hard work and effort, if one applies himself or herself, that person can achieve great things. We believe that we are the makers of our own destiny, the shapers of our future.

However, we cannot survive in this world as individuals. As John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” We are dependent on others (from the first moment of birth we need the love and nurture of parents). Most of us do not grow the food we need for survival; it is grown and produced and provided by others.

On the other hand — as members of a family, a community, and a society — we are responsible for others; those who are blessed with gifts and talents and abilities are expected to use them for the benefit of society.

Rugged individualism often leads people to ignore or deny the needs of others, thinking that if they just worked a little harder, they, too, could have all the benefits that I enjoy as an individual. This becomes translated into the idea that I alone am the source of all my blessings, rather than the steward of things loaned to me by God.

Jesus did not come into this world as a single, solitary individual. He chose to be born into a human family. He was a member of the Jewish race. There is evidence from the Gospels that Jesus practiced his Jewish faith — he worshipped in the synagogue and Temple. He formed a community of believers around him (apostles and other disciples). And we believe that he sent his apostles out into the world to evangelize and baptize, to bring others into a community of faith.

Religion is the concretization of spirituality. Religion ties us to a community of faith, where we recognize that we are in a relationship with God through others. A religious

person is simply putting his or her spirituality into practice. The practice of religion brings spirituality to a deeper level.

Rev. Philip Thompson is pastor of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids. Comments:

Harold Kasimow

Grinnell College

Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most significant Jewish religious thinkers of the 20th century, said that when faith is replaced by creed, “when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.”

Heschel’s statement helps us understand why 46 million adult Americans are not affiliated with any organized religious institutions. Most who answered “none” to the Pew survey are not giving up on God or religion. They know that religion can make them better human beings. They continue to believe in God or a “higher power.”

They leave organized religions because, in many cases, they find their worship experience, as Heschel said, “meaningless.”

How can we explain this phenomenon? I believe that too many leaders from all religions focus on doctrine and creed rather than on love and compassion. They claim that they possess the real truth and that God is not present in other houses of worship. Rather than showing love, they show contempt for members of other faiths and sometimes even encourage hate and violence.

The great increase of “Nones” — those who do not affiliate with any religious tradition — poses a serious dilemma for religious institutions. How does a religious tradition stay faithful to its unique core ideas without alienating some of its most spiritual members?

I think that the number of “Nones” may soon decline because of the remarkable election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope of the largest religious organization in the world. Pope Francis has been an inspiration not only to Catholics but to members of other faiths, including many “Nones,” especially Catholics who left the Church and are now thinking of coming back.

Francis is truly the pope of many surprises, one who is beginning to deal with some critical issues confronting his institution. He recently stated: ““The risk that we must avoid is priests and bishops falling into clericalism, which is a distortion of religion ... [W]hen the priest imposes himself, when in some way he says, ‘I am the boss here,’ he falls into clericalism.”

Like Heschel, Pope Francis stresses social justice rather than doctrine. Pope Francis, for whom “mercy is the strongest message of the Lord,” views “Nones” as “precious allies” in protecting the environment and in healing the world. Pope Francis’s love for humanity, his love for God’s creation, and his stress on mercy and compassion, on wonder and radical amazement as a path to a more spiritual life, are very appealing to members of all organized religions as well as to “Nones.”

Harold Kasimow is the George Drake Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Grinnell College. Comments:


The increase in the abandonment of organized religion has been the trend for quite some time and is something that we have observed in this society, especially in the younger generations. To understand what this means for Americans, we must first examine the history of this movement.

Nations have often abused religion to achieve ulterior motives. Coincidentally, many of the morals and laws in religion were modified as the political powers desired, distorting the divine text of the religion until the religious books could no longer legitimately be termed divine. All the corruption, injustice, and changing of the religion naturally left people in a rebellious state, seeking reform, eventually spawning the idea to reject organized religion. And in more recent times, the scientific contradictions found in religious texts accelerated the abandoning of religion.

As the statistics show, although people are increasingly leaving organized religion, their inclination to keep a connection to God or a “higher power” resulted in new ideas and even new religions. To seek a sole “higher power” is innately human and is part of our natural disposition. Religion is supposed to give us a better understanding of who the “higher power” is, what is the nature of that “higher power,” and how to worship that “higher power,” in a clear way that makes sense. Human intervention in divine texts will naturally lead to contradictions, not just scientific but even logical contradictions.

Although we understand the history behind the trend of leaving organized religion, the decision to have “none” as a religious preference is simply not academic. No one would accept that there is no need for order, laws and rules for peace and prosperity to occur. Who better to establish the laws and rules than the “higher power” that is All-Knowledgeable and Wise, understanding what is best for us? Rather than submitting to divine rules, our country’s laws and moral standards continue to evolve and not necessarily for the better. The historical pattern continues.

Islam is the middle path both spiritual and practical, with an uncorrupted message. The divine text of the Qur’an was never altered, not even one letter. It makes perfect scientific and logical sense and has no contradictions and has answers for all facets of life. Islam gives a crystal clear understanding of God, the “higher power,” and each person deserves to explore the final message of God.

Submitted by representatives of the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids. Comments:


Numbers indicating a decline in religious affiliation, yet steady belief in a “higher power”, as per the Pew studies, are consistent with how I have observed the evolution of religious belief during my 25 years as professor in college classrooms.

In keeping with scientific evidence, the most likely way to account for this is to examine not only cultural conditions and rituals persistent in keeping religious ideation alive, but also, and perhaps more significantly (especially for adult religious minds), examining the role genetic inheritance plays in formation and continuance of what is oft called “magical thinking.”

A growing body of evidence (studies detailing “the brain on religion”) point to genetic components predisposing most members of the human species to perceive certain experiences as having an “otherness” or “transcendence” — feelings there is something above or beyond a natural world. Others (perhaps 10 percent) either don’t experience reality in this manner, or if they do, are able to identify the feelings as being caused solely by their brains.

People debate whether experiences entailing belief in “higher powers” are merely the result of brain dispositions, and thereby have no corresponding correlate in reality, or whether religious ideation is induced by something outside and other than the brain. Yes. However, the former prospect is more in keeping with reason (testable evidence).

What might it mean for this country that most people continue belief in “god(s)”?

It doesn’t have to mean anything. The Pew studies do not state how “higher power” is defined. However, typically, even if people eschew organized religion, they hold to a “higher power” associated with moral authority and guidance, reward and punishment.

Hence, in event one’s “god” is not devoid of godlike characteristics, should peoples’ religious beliefs cross-section politics or any social institution and prevent one from keeping her/his subjectively cherished belief private, one might imagine this phenomenon potential to do harm — as years of human history marred with religious conflict might attest.

To not have “higher power” belief may go against the grain of cultural and genetic persuasions “intrinsic” to the human species, as perhaps by analogy, sustaining consistent peaceful relations within the species might also do. In the latter case, however, it seems the right thing to do.

In some instances it might be that overcoming our inheritances is a moral obligation — for no other reason than to remain free of discriminations and cultivate reason-based societies.

Lydia Hartunian is a professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Kirkwood Community College, and is the Founder of The Great American God-Out! Comments:


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