by Pastor Doug Kings
Do you believe in God? If you are a churchgoer, then there is a 98% likelihood that you would say yes, according to a just-released Gallup survey. That same survey also indicates, however, that you are not part of a growing trend in the opposite direction.
This most recent of Gallup’s annual questioning of Americans about the existence of God showed the lowest ever percentage to answer “Yes” to that question: 74%. That’s an astonishing 7-percentage point drop in just one year, compared to 2022 when 81% affirmed their belief in God. Twenty years ago, 90% answered yes, while for decades after Gallup first began asking the question in 1948 the number hovered around 98% who said they believed in God.
I’ve written before about reports of declining worship attendance and church membership. The results of this survey are different, however, and more significant. Being part of a church is a behavior and behaviors change for all sorts of reasons. Reasons for the decline in worship have included smaller families, increase in single adults, too much politics in church, avoiding crowds due to Covid concerns, and the overall decline of participation in voluntary organizations.Saying “I don’t believe in God” is different. Such a statement shows how one views the world and reality, and even oneself. A trend of changing beliefs would indicate that a significant cultural shift could be underway. Supporting that is the fact that, like church participation, the numbers affirming a belief in God decline steadily with the younger age of those questioned, indicating the decline will almost certainly continue in coming years.
It would be easy to lament this trend and pontificate on the social evils responsible for it, but that wouldn’t accomplish much. More importantly, it would miss what this moment has to teach us.
Pew Research, for example, has been trying to get behind some of Gallup’s numbers to better understand what they represent. A few years ago, it found that even among those affirming a belief in God, a third of them said that belief was not in the God described in the Bible. Instead, these people believed in a more nebulous higher power or spiritual force. Interestingly, almost half of those saying they did not believe in God said they did believe in a higher power or spiritual force, just like a third of the believers.
So, the question of believing or not believing is too simplistic to be helpful, and even misleading. I’ve told the story before of the late New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg, who, when confronted by a student who said they didn’t believe in God, would was to ask for a description of this disbelieved God. After hearing it, he responded, to the student’s surprise, “I don’t believe in that God, either.” Borg would then begin to describe the God he believed in, and students would discover that this God-business wasn’t the black-and-white subject they thought it was.
Borg was a leader of a small but vocal group of theologians and clergy trying to move the church in the direction of a more open and flexible understanding of God. It’s been slow going.
Like most institutions on the defensive, the church has only doubled down on its traditional beliefs rather than consider how it could learn from the growing dissatisfaction with those beliefs. Thus, fundamentalist churches are becoming even more rigid, while mainline churches are like a tire with a slow leak, with members feeling increasingly disengaged from “the old, old story” such churches keep propping up.
But the problem is not really with beliefs. Beliefs are ideas, and if God is really God, God is not an idea but Reality. In trying to explain this, Alan Watts would say during his lectures that “Reality is…” and then bang on a gong. His point is that words only get us so far in describing reality because true reality can only be experienced. No words could adequately describe the ringing of that gong. Only by hearing it would you really “know” what it was.
Ultimately, God can’t be described but only experienced. A few months ago in my Reflections, I quoted author Jim Marion discussing Alan Watts’ book What Shall We Do with the Church? Marion writes,
In his usual brilliant but compassionately humorous way, Watts suggested that the future of the Church lay in getting away from moralizing, proselytizing, mythology, fundraising, and endless rational‐level chattering, and getting back to offering the one service it should have been offering but usually was not—genuine spiritual and mystical experience….
In other words, the church shouldn’t be concerned with teaching ideas about God, let alone arguing about which are the right ones. Rather, the church should be facilitating people’s experience of God. It shouldn’t be talking about the gong but ringing it.
This disconnect is part of what’s behind the growing numbers saying they are “spiritual but not religious.” Similarly, it explains the vagueness of “higher power” and “spiritual force.” What this is telling us is that the church’s traditional language is failing to express the spiritual experience of more and more people.
A few years ago, in one of his video talks retired pastor and author, Marshall Davis, describes how the pastor of the church he now attends asks each week where people have encountered God. Invariably, the responses from the congregation are about an experience in nature. They out number interactions with another person by at least 10:1 he says. And Davis doesn’t even mention if anyone describes an experience related to traditional religion.
The idea of God as a man above the sky, whether an ominous king on a throne or a benevolent “papa,” is increasingly unbelievable and of little value. Yet it is still the image found in most of the church’s creeds, hymns, prayers, and even preaching. As Davis story shows, people are having “God experiences” but they are increasingly outside our religious norms.
Rather than try to squeeze them into its old boxes, the church needs to create, not just new language to express them, but new ways to facilitate and help people recognize sacred experiences in their daily life. If growing numbers are saying they don’t believe in God, it’s not because God has disappeared. Rather, it is that religion’s traditional “God language” is failing to express people’s experience.
This happens with everyday language all the time. Old, unused words drop away and new ones take their place. Too often, however, the church keeps religious language under theological lock-and-key. For people’s sake, and for God’s, the church needs to undo its doctrinal straight jacket and listen for the new language of people’s actual spiritual experiences.
Blessings in your life and ministry.