09/08/2014 05:12 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Drift Away

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

Smart-crack responses will not get one very far. Thus, when asked, "Are you a member of the organized church?" I can look at the chaos of polities and answer, "No, I am a Lutheran." Then: "Do you believe in institutional religion?" I can answer, "maybe I would if I were institutionalized and we had good chaplains."

Two new books reviewed by Kaya Oakes (see "Sources," below), one by Linda Mercadante, the other by the Smith-Longest-Hill-Christofferson team, teach the smart-cracker to get not smart but wise, as these authors deal with SCNRs -- Mercadante's acronymic coinage for the "Spiritual But Not Religious."

Mercadante writes:

"No matter how organized religions try to ignore, challenge, adapt, or protest it, our society is being changed by this pervasive ethos." Her studied types, "dissenters, casuals, explorers, seekers, and immigrants (to new beliefs), are often "millennials" who cannot return to the religion of their youth, "in part because many of them never had one."

Oakes says that Mercadante's book shatters "the idea that SBNRS do not really believe in anything." Some give evidence that they believe[d] in the old "New Age." Now they often wind up with a "jumbled do-it-yourself, pick-and-choose faith." Oh-oh: "The one thing nearly everyone said, is that human nature is inherently good." The stories in the New York Times, our second, or secondary scripture, on the Lord's Day, bear no witness to that.

The book by Smith, Longest, Hill, and Christofferson, takes the Catholic Church as a case study. Data predating the 2002-2008 National Study of Youth and Religion on which the authors focus already showed "decline and loss." The youth were "poorly formed in Catholic faith and life" because of a long era of "'institutional weakening' of the church."

It is not a spoiler to say that the book's conclusions about the future of young adults in Catholicism [my gloss; or in Methodism or Judaism and, increasingly, in Evangelicalism] is grim. Empty pews at Sunday Mass offer testimony. "Lapsed Catholics are highly likely to remain lapsed for a lifetime, whereas lapsed Protestants are not." Maybe. And the young "are sorely lacking in role models." Clue for the future: "Teens and young adults find Mass more rewarding if they can socialize with 'important adults' in their church communities."

Oakes is not grim: "The emerging adults . . . are entering a religious future that looks increasingly blurry, unpredictable and strange. But in that strangeness, they may find something new." In the blurry, unpredictable and strange world sometimes in our sighting are clues from the birth, rebirth, and new birth of faith[s] beyond our prospering shores or where exemplary adults, millennials, post-millennials, and others, lead exemplary lives of witness, sacrifice, and care of the other.

The sign on my office wall implicitly threatens with its command, "No Whining!" The authors of these two books record accurately, set things into context, and can be grim, but whining, they know, gets no one anywhere. Almost everything in the surrounding culture blurs the worlds of "the dissenters, casuals, explorers, and immigrants" of the past, for example in the milieus of early Christians, Judaism in most eras, etc., and at other times when reform occurred.

We read about or meet with and report on agents of change in our time and marvel at some "communities of faith" which they engender, exemplify, and promote. Reading books like those mentioned here today will not provide many answers to the issues they raise, but they may limit whining and inspire decision and resolve.


Oakes, Kaya. "Going, going, gone: Books study exodus from religion." Review of Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious, by Linda A. Mercadante, and of Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out Of, and Gone From the Church, by Kyle Smith, Kyle Longest, Jonathan Hill and Kari Christofferson. National Catholic Reporter, August, 27, 2014.

Goodstein, Laurie. "Percentage of Protestant Americans Is in Steep Decline, Study Finds." New York Times, October 9, 2012.

Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. "'Strong' Catholic Identity at a Four-Decade Low in U.S." March 13, 2013.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at