Searching for God after Christendom

By Martin E. Marty
December 23, 2009

Recently I looked at bearish signs on the front where religion is practiced (a bit less) in post-Christendom. See: Now, instead of a bear, I’ll note the chameleon-like character of religious commitment, or semi-commitment, in the same part of the world.

The source is the same survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a reliable practitioner. It was much noted and commented upon. For example, in the 11 December 2009 Wall Street Journal, there was analysis from Boston University professor Stephen Prothero, who can be called reliable as well as perceptive.

The Pew summary picked up by Prothero reveals that the US is a “nation of religious drifters.” In response I could exercise the historian’s yawn and ask, “So what else is new?” Haven’t we always been such? Immigrants brought their old faiths along and then often picked and chose among the options other immigrants brought, adaptations of these, or new inventions in the spaces between existing faiths.

Revivals, awakenings, ethnic shifts, mobility, and religious marketplaces have always invited such drifting. But the Pew people can show that there are reasons to stifle the “nothing new” yawns and say that if there is not a quantitative difference from the past, there is such a big quantitative shift that it amounts to a change in the quality of commitments.

In the Lutheran and Episcopal parishes and their kin I know best, I hear members and clergy say, half-jocularly, that half their members seem to have been brought up Roman Catholic but they changed, just as I know several Lutherans and Episcopalians who turned Catholic. Still, such moves are ecumenically “all in the family.”

Pew folks find more and more people being equally drawn to Buddhisms, Hinduisms, New Ageisms, and a bazaar-tent full of other options. Meanwhile, Kate Shellnut, in the 11 December Chicago Tribune tells how many, many young and youngish post-Christian people abandon Christian practice and hang out almost cultishly brunching at pancake houses, hoping in their “communing” to fill the void that is left as they drift.

Add to these other, similar evidences elsewhere, and you find not only the trails of serious spiritual journeys to new communities, but highly individualistic ventures. As G.K. Chesterton noted, when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in everything.

Prothero checks in: “As a scholar of religion, I am supposed to simply observe all this without rendering any judgment, but I can’t help feeling that something precious is being lost here, perhaps something as fundamental as a sense of the sacred.” He agrees with philosopher George Santayana that “American life is a powerful solvent” capable of “neutralising new ideas into banal clichés.”

Prothero worries that “this solvent is now melting down the sharp edges of the world’s religions, bending them toward purposes other than their own. . . The store managers in our spiritual market place seem a bit too eager to sell us whatever they imagine we want.”

Prothero notes that at their best, the denominations that had long sustained memberships offered different visions of the good life. “Absent a chain of memory that ties us to these religions’ ancient truths, these visions are lost, and we are left to our own devices, searching for God with as much confusion, as we search, in love, for the next new thing.”


(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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