Transcript for Diana Butler Bass on "Christianity after Religion"

Jim Fleming:  Anne Rice's defection from the Catholic Church is a perfect example of what Dianna Butler Bass calls our "post-Christian culture".  Bass is a religious scholar with a new book called “Christianity After Religion:  The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.”  She says "organized religion is losing ground fast even in some of the big Evangelical denominations.  What's surprising is how many people are abandoning church, but not God".

Diana Bass:  Over the course of the last decade in North America we have seen the greatest decline in the number of Americans who want to identify with particular religious traditions, with the number of Americans who attend weekly religious services, and this decline is happening across the board.  It used to be that when we talked about religious decline typically we were talking about liberal, mainline, Protestant denominations, but in the last ten years the decline has registered in Evangelical Protestant denominations. Two, excuse me, three, of the denominations that are experiencing huge declines right now are the gigantic Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, which is the conservative and Evangelical alternative to the more liberal, mainline Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and those three denominations all very conservative, long Evangelical heritage, and they are showing very substantial membership declines, and uh-

Fleming:  You know what's so hard to understand about this is that we hear so much all the time about America's great religiosity.  I mean, the politicians are certainly talking about it.  They're calling to Evangelical voters.  But what you're saying is that America's not really as religious as it was, and not maybe as religious as we say it is.

Bass:  Well, I think the fine, sort of, distinction is that America is not as conventionally religious as it was.  But, you know, when you look at polls, uh, ninety-one or ninety-two percent, depending on the polls, of Americans still say they believe in God, but people are unwilling to even refer to it as religiosity any longer.  They call it spirituality, or they call it something else, experience.

Fleming: Yeah.

Bass:  But they don't want to use the word religion. Religion has, in the last ten years, been identified in the popular imagination at least, with something that is negative, or hurtful, or boring, and people are still spiritual and they still talk about the Bible.  They still care about things related to God and ethics and prayer and religious experience, but they're unwilling to link that with conventional denominations.

Fleming:  A lot of people talk about themselves, as, as spiritual but not religious these days.  And I suspect that is a phrase that might resonate with you.

Bass:  Well, it does resonate in the sense that it's a large group in the United States.  It's about thirty percent of the population who use that identifier.  What spiritual but not religious tends to mean is that they are hurt by or weary of traditional constructions of dogma and doctrine and that they still want to connect with God.

Fleming:  This is something that you've experienced yourself, isn't it?  You've done a lot of searching of your own spirituality and, I guess it's fair to say, of religion.

Bass:  Yeah, it is. Where I would place myself though, I'm actually much more part of the forty-eight percent.  Right now, in the United States, forty-eight percent of Americans identify themselves as spiritual and religious.  My own life is shaped very much by, uh, three religious traditions.  That is, I was born and raised a United Methodist, and, uh, as a teenager I joined a rather conservative Evangelical church, and then went on to an Evangelical college and Evangelical seminary, so I know that conservative, Evangelical world very, very well.  As a young adult though, I became an Episcopalian.  I still am an Episcopalian and I participate in a local parish.  I have a daughter who is a teenager and she was just confirmed last year.  But for us, the primary thing that we are concerned about is do we live lives that have been transformed by an encounter with God, and do we live with passion, in order to help with the problems of the world, relieving poverty, making sure those who are oppressed have voice.

Fleming:  Your path is fascinating, but it, it is also pretty clearly within a tradition, a Christian tradition.  And that's interesting in part, because there were so many choices in, in the 70s and maybe there are now, which may be why a lot of serious religious thinkers look at this spiritual but not religious business and say "Ugh.  That's cafeteria spirituality, or you're jumping from one spiritual fad to the next."

Bass:  You, you know, I, I think in any kind of movement or trend, there's always going to, you know, be the dabblers.  And so, when I do hear the religious leaders criticizing the spiritual but not religious as being, kind of, lightweight, I'm not gonna go there.  I do not think that most people leave a faith tradition lightly, and yet, we have, quite literally, millions of Americans right now, who are moving around, because they have found religion of their childhood unsatisfying.

Fleming:  So, what are churches doing wrong, or not doing that is, is sending people wandering away out the door?

Bass:  It's a combination of things, and, and a lot of it depends on which religious tradition you, you're talking about.  I think that the mainline churches, like the Methodism of my childhood, they kind of hit the wall a while ago, thirty or forty years ago.  They were almost victims of their own success.  They had been hugely successful.  So mainly Protestants were complacent when the seventies opened up and they were thinking that they could continue to do what they always, always had done. For
Evangelicals, the problem, has, has been the massive identification of religion in politics in their churches, and, what has happened over the course of the last decade in particular, and there are many studies and articles, things I could cite about this, Evangelicals who are under thirty do not agree with the politics of the religious right.  They have different political pains about uh, gay, lesbian rights and marriage, and whether or not gay and lesbian people should be ordained in the ministry.  They're very different from older Evangelicals.  Young Evangelicals are deeply committed to environmentalist causes and their parents are not. Young Evangelicals care about world poverty and global issues.  Their parents are not interested in those things as political concerns.  The only place where younger and older Evangelicals agree is around issues of abortion.

Fleming:  But doesn't this mean a kind of overthrow of religious authority?  What does it mean for the pastors?  For the priests?  What does it mean for theories of morality and religious authority?

Bass:  Well, the turn away from institutions doesn't mean there, there's a turn away from God or a completely chaotic sense of where all this is gonna go.  What people are turning towards is lived experience as being the place from which faith should spring.  With that shift, it can be threatening to clergy who think that being a clergy person is about being the guardians of an institution.  But if clergy understand that their essential call, that their job, is not to be a guardian of institution, but instead to be a gatherer of a faith-filled community of exploration, experience, questions, and wonder, well, then there's plenty of space for clergy.  A lot of people say that actually, that this is a reformation, or a re-formation of Christian faith and faith more generally.  You could look Judaism as going through a similar kind of stress.  I think that Islam as it encounters being a really, truly global religion for the first time, and having a lot of adherents in the West, it's going to have to reorient itself around some of these questions too.  And so that, to me, is the Reformation, it's, it's a whole new way of doing things, and I think that it's going to happen.  I really am quite convinced of that actually.

Fleming:  That's religious scholar Diana Butler Bass. Her book is called “Christianity After Religion:  The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.”


Comments for this interview

Sources (Diana Butler Bass, 02/18/2013 - 10:57am)

The information on the PCA comes from an article from the University of Chicago's Martin Marty and the yearbook on American and Canadian churches (the year available at the time of writing my book), both objective and highly respected sources on church membership.

Wrong! (S Galbraith, 03/19/2012 - 7:36pm)

The church that is about half of its former size, and continuing to bleed members is the PCUSA, the Presbyterian Church USA, NOT the PCA, or Presbyterian Church in America. See

Inaccurate statement (Jerry Koerkenmeier, 03/19/2012 - 2:28pm)

Enjoyed the interview, but Diana Butler Bass claims the PCA is "experiencing huge declines", but that is simply not accurate. She claims the PCA has shown "very substantial membership declines." Again, this is not true. In fact, the PCA has grown significantly in the past decade. The PCA had one year with a 1.3 percent decline after a large church purged its rolls, but regained that number and more the following year.