Spiritual Apostasy or The Great Falling Away

Spiritual or atheist? More nonbelievers are saying ‘both.’ A ‘Great Falling Away,’ a ‘Spiritual Apostasy.’

Spiritual or atheist? More nonbelievers are saying ‘both.’ A ‘Great Falling Away,’ a ‘Spiritual Apostasy.’

Harry Bruinius. Christian Science Monitor•March 11, 2019

(Article Excerpts)

More Americans have begun to turn away from organized religion. The millennial generation, especially, has been at the center of one of the fastest-growing religious cohorts in the nation – the so-called nones, a culturally diverse group of Americans who no longer check a specific faith tradition as part of their identities. But even those who say there is no God have begun to reject easy labels, experts say.

“So many labels try to define people by what they are not – spiritual-but-not-religious, non-believers, atheists, even religious ‘nones’,” says Douglas Hicks, dean and professor of religion at Oxford College of Emory University in Georgia, via email. “But everyone has a worldview and it is often incredibly profound. They often have layers of moral complexity that defy labels.”


This has made the job of demographers and pollsters difficult. Today, the burgeoning number of “nones” has swelled to about 25 percent of the population, Pew Research Center reports. These include the growing number of Americans who call themselves “atheists,” about 3 percent of the population, and “agnostics,” or those who believe the existence of God cannot be known, and who make up about 4 percent of the population.

Surveys that try to gauge atheistic beliefs with more indirect questions estimate that the number of people who don’t believe in a supernatural God may be as high as 26 percent of the population.

“Do I make any decisions based on the possibility that God exists? I don’t,” says Mr. Campolo. “So technically, I guess, I’m agnostic. Practically, I’m an atheist, but I would never call myself either of those things, because those words in our society at this moment connote anti-religious or connote anti-anti-Christian perspectives, and I don’t want to be defined by what I’m not.”

Instead, he prefers to call himself a “humanist.” “But not because it’s a great name, but because it was kind of undefined. And so, like when I was the humanist chaplain at USC [in Los Angeles], the ‘humanists’ ended up being people who are committed to pursuing love as a way of life and who eat dinner with Bart on Sunday nights.”

As the number of “nones” and nonbelievers grow, there are signs that some of the antipathy Americans have had toward atheists have begun to thaw, recent surveys suggest.

Last Monday, Portland, Oregon, became the second city in the U.S. to extend civil rights protections to atheists, agnostics, and other “non-religious” people, after Madison, Wisconsin, did the same in 2015. Nearly a third of the population in Oregon describe themselves as “nones” – the largest single cohort in the state, followed by evangelical Protestants, who make up 29 percent, and Catholics, who make up 12 percent, according to Pew.

As many critics note, the “new atheism” movement is overwhelmingly white and male, and even plagued by a “brazen sexism” and vehement intolerance that makes women and others prefer to distance themselves from the term. And of course, every group has its trolls – eager to cast derision and mockery on people who believe differently than they do.

That said, “I’ve seen plenty of evidence of folks in the nontheist movement moving away from the four-horsemen ‘new atheism,’ and moving away from antagonism toward religion,” says Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.

Many nontheists have used terms such as “religious naturalism” or “religious humanism” or “humanistic spirituality” to describe the underlying beliefs that support their ethical and moral convictions without an appeal to divine revelation or a supernatural God.

“Do I believe in a personal God? No,” says Robert Strock, a therapist and counselor who heads The Global Bridge Foundation, a humanitarian group in Santa Monica, California. “Do I feel like humanistic spirituality is including people that do? Absolutely, yes. I feel like I’d be a bigot if I didn’t.”

Not all nontheists, especially those who embrace the identity “atheist,” are comfortable with terms like “religion” or “spirituality,” however. And many see their role as combating the dangers of supernatural beliefs and sectarian ideologies that they see as a major source of human discord and violence.

“Spirituality is a term that I’m comfortable with, but not all of my colleagues are,” says Ms. Klaeysen, who has a doctorate in pastoral counseling and congregational development.

“How I look at it is, I think of transcendence not as an out-of-body or other worldly experience, but more of, how am I making a real connection, a connection not outside myself, but kind of a ‘super connection’ if you will, whether it is with another human, or a community, or with music, art, nature – a sense that I’m fully aware of myself in nature or as part of the universe.”

Leave a Reply