Are we really through with religion in Anchorage?

The other night I visited a local church for a music extravaganza where I was taken aback by statements I heard about religion. The onstage announcer said several times they didn’t follow religion, but were driven by Jesus Christ. And all the people said amen, vociferously shouting their approval. I know many of those present came from churches organized around strong religious principles. It started my thinking about what religion really is. Most dictionary definitions of religion are stated along these lines: “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” It was interesting that many songs sung that night expressed those same thoughts. Maybe it’s a problem of whipped up enthusiasm for a false idea, or liking to hear the sound of one’s own voice. What do you think?

Many of the faith traditions represented in this interfaith gathering fall under the umbrella of religion and religious traditions. Some of them are extremely strict and unyielding regarding the issues swirling in religion today. Oops, there’s that word again.

In a recent Odyssey Networks article by Jaime Clark-Soles, a New Testament professor at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, raised similar questions. First, she noticed the ignorance and intolerance of other religions around the world, then suggested readers Google this phrase — “Christians protest mosques.” I was shocked by the flood of news stories about anti-Muslim protests, primarily in the U.S.

Dr. Clark-Soles then posed these questions. “Is it possible to fully embrace my religious tradition, to be able to articulate eloquently what is distinctive and true, and holy and meaningful, and beautiful and life-giving and even genius about it without denigrating or playing off of another one? Does my tradition have to be superior to another in order to be true, holy, meaningful, etc.? Does it have to be the only one that conveys what is true, holy, meaningful, etc.? Do we have to compete, or can we cooperate?”

What I heard the other night was a case for exceptionalism, accompanied by 100-decibel music that left my ears ringing.

I see this dialogue play in our community in other ways, ways that involve dignity, charity and human rights. The latest Pew Research released this week, “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious,” another cut of the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, which goes into depth regarding the evolution of religious faith here in the U.S. found people of faith are slightly more accepting of LGBT adherence, but are declining to self-identify with specific religions. The rise of the “nones,” atheists and those not identifying with any specific religion is attributed to the influence of millennials and dying of older generations. However, researchers found “a great deal of stability in the U.S. religious landscape. … Among the roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults who do claim a religion, there has been no discernible drop in most measures of religious commitment. Indeed, by some conventional measures, religiously affiliated Americans are, on average, even more devout than they were a few years ago.”

Absolute certain belief in God showed a major drop from 71 percent to 63 percent from 2008 to 2014. The “silent generation” and baby boomers are in the 70th percentile while millennials are only in the 50th percentile in this measure. Part of the millennial position may be due to the narcissistic tag they’ve inherited. A recent Time magazine article expanded this theme. “The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58 percent more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982. They’re so convinced of their own greatness that the National Study of Youth and Religion found the guiding morality of 60 percent of millennials in any situation is that they’ll just be able to feel what’s right.”

Contrary to the outburst against religion I described at the beginning of this column, the Pew survey indicates two-thirds of religiously affiliated adults say religion is “very important” in their lives, and one-quarter of them also say religion is “somewhat important” in their lives.

There has also been no decline in religiously affiliated adults who say they pray daily, 65 percent in 2008 and 66 percent in 2014. Attendance at religious services shows little change as well with 2007 weekly attendance at 46 percent and 2014 weekly attendance at 45 percent. Christians as a subset showed 66 percent in 2007 and 68 percent in 2014.

By most measures — importance of religion in their life, frequency of prayer, frequency of religious service attendance, and belief in God or a universal spirit — analysis of the data shows the “nones” are becoming more secular.

Finally, study data clearly shows most Americans see organized religion as a force for good in American society. In fact, 89 percent of adults indicate churches and other religious institutions “bring people together and strengthen community bonds,” while 87 percent say they “play an important role in helping the poor and needy,” and 75 percent say they “protect and strengthen morality in society.”

I believe the outburst against religion was misplaced and ill-timed. We’ve a long way to go in Anchorage before taking such strong stands against religion. One of the purposes of this column is to expose the community to the multifaceted ways belief is expressed in our community. More cooperation and less dissension ensures the strength of our community through the practice of religion.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)

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