Utahns And Organized Religion: Is There Really More?

May 14, 2015

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study in 2012 which explored the rise of the so called “nones.” These are those who, when they come across a question about their religious preferences on a survey, check the box labeled “none.” The results of the study are pretty staggering, indicating that one in five American adults fall into this category.

Far from a recent revolution, Philip Barlow, professor of religious studies at Utah State University, said that this pull away from religious organization in general dates as far back as colonial America. This “freedom from” has greatly accelerated from the 60s and 70s with flower children, “make love not war” and the “age of Aquarius.”

“That has blossomed in the last decade or two, a decreasing allegiance to organizations as such. So, it’s important to see it in that context. It’s not just religion, but its banks, and its congress and its institutions,” Barlow said.

However, the Pew research team is careful in how they define the nones. Although this group does not claim a specific religion, these individuals still say that spirituality is a priority. Barlow said that phrases such as “I’m spiritual, not religious” or “nature is my religion” are common within this group.

Wayne Jacobsen is a California pastor of 20 years, as well as an author and speaker. Most notably, he worked with William P. Young on the recent Christian blockbuster, “The Shack.” In Jacobsen’s newest book, “Finding Church” he explores this question of the nones, why they feel so frustrated, and where they are going to find spiritual fulfillment.

“People aren’t necessarily done with God or done with the spiritual journey,” Jacobsen said. “But there are more and more people who are increasingly frustrated, or alienated, or isolated from what we normally have as a Sunday morning congregational meeting, and the membership and the accouterment that goes on around that. I think in our time they’ve become less engaging relationally, more a production, more a meeting, more a ritual than helping people embrace what it really is to live deeply in Jesus.”

Jacobsen said that as more people find that they are no longer engaged by traditional Sunday worship, they begin to look for other options. Data gathered by the Hartford Institute of Religion Research indicates that while around 40 percent of Americans say they go to church each week, less than 20 percent actually attend. Jacobsen said that this doesn’t mean less people are interested in religion, but that they are looking inward rather than outward.

“The other way is that people connect more relationally,” Jacobsen said. “They see it in the twos and threes of getting together for coffee, or going out to dinner or meeting at a home. But not necessarily every week the same group of people trying to re-incubate a ritual. It’s more people who want to have endearing conversations about what it is to know Jesus, what it is to live like he lived, what it means to follow him and how is it that we encourage people to do that. Many of us are finding that it’s easier to do that in a conversation with two or three people in it, than it is to standardize that into a mini-concert, mini-lecture format.”

So how does Utah stand up in this trend? Barlow said that Utah presents a very distinct region of the United States, with its inhabitants belonging predominantly to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He said that the LDS church is perhaps the primary antithesis of “I’m spiritual, not religious” in the country.

“One of its core values can be represented by the Book of Mormon term ‘deseret,’” Barlow said. “Joseph Smith taught it meant ‘honeybee’ explicitly and by connotation ‘industry’ and by secondary connotation ‘organized industry.’ So, I don’t know of any more tightly organized religious body in the world than the LDS church.  So there’s plenty of ‘I’m spiritual, not religious. I want freedom from organized religion telling me what to do or think or how busy to be.’ There is a pulling back, but it runs against a stronger current within the LDS church.”