Areopagus in America
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
February 29, 2008 - According to a new study published by the Pew Forum and Religion and Public Life, “More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all.” The extent of the study itself and the complexity of its details undoubtedly means that substantive conclusions will likely take some time in being teased from the results. Nonetheless, the study does confirm what astute cultural observers have long suspected: the forces of market-driven consumerism may have more to do with the shape of one’s religious life than truth.
In summarizing key results, the study reports that “constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents.” The fact that “movement” is the one constant in an otherwise frenetic pool of religious diversity suggests that we are living in a cultural moment similar to the one that the apostle Paul encountered at the Areopagus in Athens. In the course of his own survey on religion and public life, Paul remarked, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god’” (Acts 17:22-23).
Much like those in Athens who, in worshipping the “unknown god,” either sought to ensure that all of the relevant bases were being covered or aimed to find solace in a religion tailor-made to suit one’s particular preferences, fully 12% of the 35,000+ surveyed in the Pew study are broadly religious but have no particular affiliation. Moreover, the study shows that “the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) [including atheists/agnostics] is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.”
The final stat is staggering. Lack of religious affiliation among young people together with the “constant movement” overall suggests that traditional structures for the transmission of religious belief are eroding. Rather than inheriting the faith of one’s family, church, or community, it appears that people today increasingly carve out a religious identity that essentially refuses to be identified. It is, as it were, a means of being “very religious” while worshipping an “unknown god.”
Yet the differences between Paul’s day and ours are striking. For in his encounter with the Athenians, Paul proclaimed that the “unknown god” was the “God who made the world and everything in it” who “being Lord of heaven and earth does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25). In our day, the “unknown god” is the self -- the subject of consumption who creates its own world and everything in it. While the Athenians worshipped the transcendent Unknown, twenty-first century Americans worship the immanent knower.
Still, Paul’s strategy is apropos. What is desperately needed in an overcrowded marketplace of religiosity is a compelling proclamation of the God who now “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30) – a repentance that includes turning from the consumptive patterns of life that created the overcrowded marketplace to begin with.