So why did all 1,500 seats sell out for a debate I moderated a few months ago entitled “Has Science Refuted Religion?” at the California Institute of Technology? Why should the brilliant minds of the Caltech community even care, especially since skeptics, rather than true believers, made up the majority of the audience?
As the dean of a theology school, the question is of high interest to me, and I think I know the answer.
In my experience, most skeptics today are not dogmatic atheists or jaded cynics, though some are. Most are seekers. They include Caltech geeks but also a large swath of Americans who — looking at our improved scientific understanding, changing social norms and increasingly pluralistic religious culture — have decided that many rigid doctrines of the past are just no longer credible.
Critically, the majority of America’s young people are also squarely in the doubters’ camp, even the two-thirds under 30 who still identify with a religion. A groundbreaking survey by LifeWay Christian Resources found that an astounding 72 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now consider themselves “more spiritual than religious.”
While these young people are no longer members of traditional churches, they may still show up at a Sunday service now and then, looking somewhat awkward. They may pull away when pastors proclaim Jesus is the only possible way to be saved. But they are seeking, and they are finding others like themselves, and together they are beginning to change the face of American religion.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that skeptics are the new religious.
Within the Christian tradition, skeptics are often drawn to the Emerging Church movement, which is expanding rapidly. While Emergent leaders share a common admiration for the teaching of Jesus, the communities they form vary widely. Meeting sites range from homes to pubs to parks to churches to convention centers. The leaders are more often hosts and conveners than preachers and teachers of doctrine.
The Christianity they espouse is about doing and being, not creeds and orthodoxy. It’s about making space to talk and question openly. These groups focus on a living quest rather than a frozen belief. They acknowledge an awe and ecstasy bubbling up from God-knows-where that empowers them to live by the words of that radical first-century rabbi: “Love your neighbor,” ‘’Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Many of our students are among these new emerging leaders. They minister to seekers ranging from Caltech brainiacs to recently released felons and just about everyone in between.