Wednesday, October 7 , 2015, 2:36 pm | Fair 78º

Karen Telleen-Lawton: What’s Happening to Religion?

Dr. Diana Butler Bass, a professor at Westmont College in the late 1980s, has led weekend of discussions on religion this summer at All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Montecito.
Dr. Diana Butler Bass, a professor at Westmont College in the late 1980s, has led weekend of discussions on religion this summer at All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Montecito.  (Karen Telleen-Lawton / Noozhawk photo)

By Karen Telleen-Lawton, Noozhawk Columnist |

The first slide showed “the nuns” — a group of enthusiastic young habit-clad women traveling by bus on a social mission caring for the poor. The next showed “the nones,” 20- and 30-somethings who increasingly are unaffiliated with any religion. Between those two presentation slides lies a developing story.

Dr. Diana Butler Bass, a professor at Westmont College in the late 1980s, came to Santa Barbara this summer for a weekend of discussions at All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Montecito. Discussing the issues in her provocatively named book Christianity After Religion, Butler Bass provided statistical support for what Christians have increasingly witnessed for themselves.

In 1960, she reported, 98 percent of Americans called themselves Christians. Half a century later, Pew polls put this figure at 78 percent (2007) and 73 percent (2012). According to Butler Bass, trends begun in the 1960s accelerated dramatically in the first decade of the 21st century.

That decade featured seminal events such as 9/11, the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal, Protestant conflict over homosexuality, and the religious right’s vociferous demands of political candidates. With events like these, it’s not surprising that over one of five young adults is “unaffiliated.” The same trends affect every major denomination of Christianity and Judaism, with evangelicals experiencing the most rapid decline.

Still, 91 percent believe in God or a “universal spirit.” In studies by the Pew Charitable Trust from 1999 to 2009, Butler Bass said the percentages of people who are spiritually — versus religiously — connected have reversed. Those who consider themselves “religious but not spiritual” droppd from 48 percent to 12 percent, while those claiming to be “spiritual and religious” climbed from 9 percent to 45 percent.

Perhaps this is “just” semantics, but Butler Bass recognizes a bigger, psychological shift. In her workshops, participants across religious and political spectrums define religion with similar words such as institution, structure and bureaucracy. They describe spirituality by personal experience.

Christian history is replete with mystics and spiritual thinkers such as 12th century Hildegard of Bingen, 13th century Francis of Assisi, 18th century John Wesley, and 20th century Dietrich Bohnhoffer. But mainline religions have tended to organize and maintain institutions and standards for the faithful.

To a greater extent than religiosity, spirituality relies on authority validated with internal sources. Spiritual people believe that something is true not because there’s a commandment about it, but because it’s true based on their experience and web of connections.

Some important questions emerge from these trends. From the perspective of those who want to explore their spiritual selves, can they find places in America’s churches, temples and mosques? From the institutions’ perspectives, how can they facilitate spiritual growth without being dragged down by buildings and bureaucracy?

Butler Bass pointed out one local nonprofit that is exemplary: the Beatitudes Society. This national leadership development organization directed by the Rev. Anne Howard “identifies, resources and connects young entrepreneurial faith leaders who are creating new models for vibrant church life and the pursuit of social justice.” Butler Bass suggested, “Now we just need a Beatitudes Society for adults.”

She used to think the change would develop slowly, over a generation. But now Butler Bass is convinced we’re reaching a tipping point. She recalled the impression of a First Nations attendee at her Canadian workshop: “Western religions are catching up!”

As one who has loved the traditions of the Episcopal Church, I am reluctant to discard or stow them in the attic. But l recognize the ossification and need for change in the institutional church. So like Butler Bass, I think it’s an exciting time to be a religious — and spiritual — person.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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