Like a growing number of Americans, some East Valley residents have lost faith in organized religion and are seeking a connection to God on their own.
A new poll by Parade magazine finds that 34 percent of Americans don’t practice any religion. And even though about 70 percent say they believe in God and a majority pray, only 30 percent attend religious service at least once a week.
Beverly Lawrence was raised Southern Baptist, but at 14, she decided it just wasn’t doing anything for her personally.
“Religion has too many man-made rules,” said Lawrence, now a 62-year-old Oriental medical practitioner living in Chandler.
As she found those within the church not even following the rules that were preached, her attitudes about religion changed.
“You weren’t supposed to drink or smoke and had to stay away from the movies,” Lawrence said. “But I’d baby-sit people’s children when they went out for movies and even at church, during breaks, people would light a cigarette.”
The hypocrisy of churchgoers not following their own rules turned off Lawrence. Still, she said she doesn’t have anything against religion. It’s just not for her.
That sentiment is echoed in a recent national online survey published by Parade Magazine that reveals nearly 1 out of 4 people identify themselves as spiritual, but not religious.
Thirty-four percent don’t practice any religion. And even though about 70 percent say they believe in God and a majority pray, religious service attendance is lower on the list of priorities, with only 30 percent attending at least once a week.
The results follow a pattern that’s developed over time. In the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 15 percent of Americans claimed no religion at all, compared to 8 percent in 1990, pushing this category up into the third spot, just below Catholics and Baptists.
The general consensus among East Valley residents interviewed for this story is that religion gives a social network to like-minded people turning to God and faith, while spirituality is an individual connection with God. But the deeper interpretations can vary, depending on which side of the survey they’re on.
LOOKING INWARD FOR GOD
The survey findings didn’t surprise local residents, religious scholars and leaders, saying whether they agree with it or not, more people are turning inward to look for God or their connection with a higher power.
Still, that doesn’t mean residents are shunning religious institutions quite yet. Those who do attend say it’s more about being part of a community and being of service.
About two years ago, Tom Shoemaker, professor of religious studies at Mesa Community College, began feeling a disconnect from his students in a class on world religions.
“Fewer students are identifying themselves as religious,” Shoemaker said. “The rest are interested in studying it, but don’t consider it theirs.”
When Shoemaker asked the students how many believe they have a soul, almost all of them said yes.
“They believe in something, but it’s not what their parents believe in,” Shoemaker said.
Sammy Fries, a 14-year-old freshman at Chandler High School, who attends Temple Beth Sholom in Chandler with his mother, Lori Fries, said if he had a choice, he’d choose spiritualism because he could choose what to believe in “instead of the beliefs that are there for you.”
A self-described “little religious but not over-the-top orthodox teenager,” he admits many kids his age think of it as a chore, unless it’s attached to an activity.
“Kids my age don’t look forward to going (to a religious institution),” Sammy Fries said.
Valley-based New Age author Teena Booth, who grew up Christian but moved to the New Age movement in the 1980s, said the word spiritual is code for what used to be New Age, until that got a superfluous connotation.
Traditional religion in her mind always gave her a feeling of separation from God “because God is above and we’re below.”
She likes spirituality’s connection for its adoption of ancient Eastern philosophies and traditions like Buddhism and Western idealists like Baruch Spinoza and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
SEEKING SPIRITUAL ANSWERS
Joel Gereboff, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Arizona State University, noted: “A lot of people find aspects of institutionalized religion problematic, so people say they don’t want to belong to, say, a Catholic or Baptist church,” Gereboff said.
Mesa resident Daisy Urrea, 41, a Christian from Puerto Rico, would agree. She believes in God but considers herself more spiritual than religious. She hasn’t attended church in two years.
“Sometimes rituals get misused,” Urrea said. “There’s no point in giving power to one person or one group.”
Shoemaker pointed to the success of Richard Dawkins, a renowned British academic, atheist and author of The God Delusion, and fellow author Christopher Hitchens as proof that there’s a growing audience for these differing viewpoints.
Lifestyle is another factor.
“Fifty to 60 years ago, parents made sure their kids got a full dose of religion,” Shoemaker said. “These days kids have soccer commitments and dance practice to attend to, and with more parents working and coming home tired, taking time out to church is getting harder.”
Physical spaces for spiritualists can be seen in places like East West Exchange in Chandler. Think of it as a yoga studio, with a café, meeting space for discussions and a spirituality bookstore.
“A lot of people who move toward spirituality are often those who don’t find their answers in their religion,” said store owner Lisa Semrau.
She said at times those who don’t understand spiritual seekers, consider concepts like New Age all about “psychic mumbo jumbo and tarot cards or the dumbed-down Sedona experience.”
At its core, it’s about social responsibility, said Semrau. Her main clientele are baby boomers, who find comfort among the yoga magazines, and books like The Zen of Creative Painting and Portraits of Tibetan Buddhist Masters.
According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Forum On Religion and Public Life in 2007, the category of those unaffiliated with any particular religion has shot up faster than any other religious group in recent times, at 16 percent of American adults.
That doesn’t surprise Rev. Jan Olav Flaaten, executive director of The Arizona Ecumenical Council, who said people find differences from congregation to congregation in how they do their preaching or worship.
“That’s where people realize if it works for them or not,” Flaaten said.
People are also unhappy with hypocrisy in the church, or sexual shenanigans, or its irrelevance to them, Flaaten added.
“They can’t identify with what’s being said in their lives,” Flaaten said, noting that churches don’t deal with hard issues like the economy or global warming or racism, that people grapple with in their day-to-day lives.
“Sometimes churches want to be happy and comfortable, but people say it doesn’t get at where life is at,” Flaaten said.
But there’s another viewpoint at the other end.
At Saving Grace Lutheran Church in Queen Creek, Pastor Augie Iadicicco acknowledged people have less time for church and God.
“Across the board, there has been a shift and people are finding their connection outside the institution of church,” Iadicicco said. But, he said, “there’s something about the commitment to a body of believers and to make it a part of life on a regular basis.”
He believes religion done well would be an expression of a healthy and vibrant faith.
Iadicicco said those claiming they don’t attend church because some there are hypocrites and fakers are using the wrong motivation for staying away.
“Everyone in church is a sinner and has fallen short,” Iadicicco said. “To expect the church to be perfect is foolish.”
STRUCTURE FOR SPIRITUALITY
Rabbi Mendy Deitsch of Chabad of the East Valley said often religious organized groups get negative publicity, which turns people off from religion. Spirituality, he believes, can be found within religious confines.
“A true seeker is someone who won’t be influenced by a newspaper article or bad publicity to stop seeking the truth, and they’ll find it in a religious format,” Deitsch said.
Dr. Ed Mezar, a member of Deitsch’s congregation, said he was never “super religious” growing up. He’s been in both places — a self-described secularist and now a practicing Jew.
At 31, he felt lost and wondered “what the hell life was all about.” He veered toward spiritual studies and individual growth, but later in life, especially after having a daughter, he felt like he wanted her to understand Judaism.
“Now, studying religion is my spirituality,” Mezar said.
Religion is also the answer for 45-year-old Chandler resident Lori Fries, Sammy Fries’s mother. She said religion was all about the holidays and community events growing up. But as she got older, especially after a personal battle with cancer, it became much more.
“It was the cornerstone of my stability,” Fries said. Having her name on the list of those who needed prayers was helpful, to know that there were people looking out for her.
Fries also likes the structure.
“When you can’t pray, there’s words to turn to. With spiritual, where do you look?” Fries said.
Flora Donaldson, 66, was recently visiting the Mesa Mormon Temple. She teaches Sunday School in Duncan to Spanish-speaking children. She says those who believe in only spirituality and the self “have got it all wrong.”
“It’s important to serve, too, besides just praying. It’s important to be active in the community,” Donaldson said.
But Reggie Schimpff, 53, who attends Barah Ministries in Gilbert, considers herself a Christian whose God is found in the Bible. She doesn’t feel obliged to do service for the sake of it, “or to get something in return.”
“When Christ died on the cross, the work was done,” Schimpff said. “You’re already saved, you cannot lose your salvation.”
Marian Niemann, 64, visiting family in Gilbert, said she likes being active in church because it helps her reach out to those in need in the community. She was a Baptist kid who fell in love with the Catholic church. She’s all about a measured approach.
“It’s up to you to take in what’s being said and what’s in the Bible,” Niemann said, “all in balance.”