Saturday, January 7, 2012

Rising Spiritual Apathy

According to some recent polling data, there's a growing segment of the American population that could be described as the "spiritually apathetic." Writing for USA Today, here's how Cathy Lynn Grossman frames the data:

When Ben Helton signed up for an online dating service, under "religion" he called himself "spiritually apathetic."

Sunday mornings, when Bill Dohm turns his eyes toward heaven, he's just checking the weather so he can fly his 1946 Aeronca Champ two-seater plane.

Helton, 28, and Dohm, 54, aren't atheists, either. They simply shrug off God, religion, heaven or the ever-trendy search-for-meaning and/or purpose.

Their attitude could be summed up as "So what?"

"The real dirty little secret of religiosity in America is that there are so
many people for whom spiritual interest, thinking about ultimate questions, is minimal," says Mark Silk, professor of religion and public life at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.

According to the polling data:

•44% told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking "eternal wisdom," and 19% said "it's useless to search for meaning."

•46% told a 2011 survey by Nashville-based evangelical research agency, LifeWay Research, they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.

•28% told LifeWay "it's not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose." And 18% scoffed at the idea that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.

•6.3% of Americans turned up on Pew Forum's 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Citing David Kinnaman, author of You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church ... and Rethinking Faith, Grossman summarizes the "So Whats" like this:

They're uninterested in trying to talk a diverse set of friends into a shared viewpoint in a culture that celebrates an idea that all truths are equally valid, he says. Personal experience, personal authority matter most. Hence Scripture and tradition are quaint, irrelevant, artifacts. Instead of followers of Jesus, they're followers of 5,000 unseen "friends" on Facebook or Twitter.

And Kinnaman himself says this: "'Spiritual' is the hipster way of saying they're concerned with social injustice. But if you strip away the hipster factor, I'd estimate seven in ten young adults would say they don't see much influence of God or religion in their lives at all."

Read all of the USA Today article.

Many years ago, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote the following:

And if there is one thing I long for above all else is that the years to come will see Christianity in this country able to capture the imagination of our culture, to draw the strongest energies of our thinking and feeling into the exploration of what our creeds put before us.

If Kinnaman is right that the "So Whats" represent seven in ten young adults, then the church has her work cut out for her when it comes to capturing imaginations in ways that not only bring people to Christian faith, but that also address the serious issues of mainline church institutional decline!


Robert F said...

Didn't the Desert Fathers consider "apathea" to be the deadliest sin? I know that word doesn't mean "apathy," exactly, but the sort of listlessness and disinterestedness that is exhibited by so many, especially of the young, in our society in matters of the spirit is surely a cousin to what the Fathers faced.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Robert F. Perhaps you are thinking of accidie (sloth)?

I note the following from Bishop Kallistos Ware's The Orthodox Way:

"Purification of the passions leads eventually, by God's grace, to what Evagrius terms apatheia or 'dispassion'. By this he means not a negative condition of indifference or insensitivity in which we no longer feel temptation, but a positive state of reintegration and spiritual freedom in which we no longer yield to temptation. Perhaps apatheia can best be translated 'purity of heart'. It signifies advancing from instability to stability, from duplicity to simplicity or singleness of heart, from the immaturity of fear and suspicion to the maturity of innocence and trust. For Evagrius dispassion and love are integrally connected, as the two sides of a coin. If you lust, you cannot love. Dispassion means that we are no longer dominated by selfishness and uncontrolled desire, and so we become capable of true love."

Robert F said...

Yes, Bryan, I was thinking of accidie, not apatheia or disinterest, as Meister Eckhart calls it. Thanks for the correction.

Jeff Marx said...

This process is becoming more apparent in my parish. There are many non-attenders who are just drifting away. When one calls or e-mails them there is a sense that there is no traction. I think 'apathy' is the cause of that. I am aware of how strongly shaped I am by a Christian cultural world view and what a challenge it is to confront someone from "a different world."

Apis Melliflora said...

I read his book. It made me cringe. But I liked one of his conclusions: that youth aren't looking for what's hip, but for what is genuine.