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Sunday, March 16, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Poll finds growing number of believers eschew church

Dennis Christner was raised in a Lutheran home so devout he was not permitted to join the secular Boy Scouts. As an adult tennis pro, he left Michigan for California and began exploring.

"I really got disenchanted with being told what to do and what to believe," the American Canyon resident said. He eventually discovered the Church of Religious Science.

He does not attend services but said he believes the teachings.

"It just felt so comfortable," said Christner, 55. "It makes sense, it fits. It's like a manual on how it is, not how you should be."

Christner belongs to one of the largest and fastest growing groups identified in a February survey of the American religious life.

This multifaceted band includes lapsed believers, nonbelievers, those who believe but don't belong to a congregation and those whose convictions don't conform to any faith.

They account for as much as one quarter of all adults in the western United States.

Most of them describe their religion as "nothing in particular," says the survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Throughout the 1980s, the group made up no more than 8 percent of the population.

"Americans are very individualistic when it comes to religion," said Alan Wolf, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Life at Boston College. "There is a big increase in the group that would call themselves spiritual but not religious and there's also a lot of mix and matching."

Carlo and Mary Busby see them every day, browsing books, nondenominational items and artifacts of other people's faiths in the couple's store, Sagrada Sacred Arts on Oakland's Telegraph Avenue.

"What we're seeing in the shop is a lot of searching, testing of different traditions than one grew up in," Carlo Busby said. "We have one customer, a Jewish fellow who went to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He has incorporated that into his devotion."

More important than religious identity is whether a spiritual path "makes you a more compassionate person," Mary Busby said.

Researcher Robert Fuller calls them unaffiliated "nones," as in, "none of the above." He says their philosophical forebears -- Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin -- helped found the nation.

"People don't like to hear that," Fuller said, Bradley University professor and author of "Spiritual but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America."

"I see letters to the editor all the time that talk about how our founding fathers intended this to be a Christian nation. I think, 'You've got to be kidding.'"

Church membership was below 20 percent in the time of the Pilgrims, he said.

"One of the odd things we were taught was how Pilgrims would trudge through the snow to chapel," he said. "As a matter of fact, a woman (at that time) was more likely to conceive out of wedlock than to belong to a church."

He says about 20 percent of people consider themselves spiritual or religious but don't regularly attend a house of worship.

"They do ask the questions, Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? They don't believe any one religion has a lock on those answers."

Former believers make up the bulk of the Agnostic and Atheist Student Association at UC Davis, said co-founder Jeremy Ross.

"There are a lot more Catholics than anything else," said Ross, 23, who has been culturally Jewish and religiously secular his whole life. "They have a sense of feeling betrayed or let down by religion."

Gina Turcott's devoutly Catholic mother took her to church in Maine, but the only message she heard was to fear God.

"I didn't know how to articulate it until I was an adult, but I knew it didn't make sense to me -- the hell, the damnation," the Walnut Creek woman said. "I negated religion altogether. I didn't find any kind of logic behind it."

Turcott, 39, considers herself a deeply spiritual person.

"A very spiritual person, to me, is someone who acknowledges that the only difference between themselves and other human beings is the flesh and bones body within which they live -- that, on the inside where everything is only thoughts and feelings, everybody is simply striving for the same loves, successes, pleasures and levels of joy and freedom that we are all seeking, that there is only one creator of life and that is life itself.

"Religion is not your spirituality, it is the practice of your spirituality."

Agnostic John Fletcher just read and rejected "The God Delusion," by celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins.

"To say that you don't need a God for scientific purposes doesn't mean there isn't one," said the former Lawrence Livermore computer scientist. "I prefer to say I don't know."

Fletcher began to question the Episcopal faith he held dear when he was 15.

"I realized the things I learned in school and the things I learned in Sunday school didn't fit together very well," he said.

He began to query others about the sensibility of the faith.

"I was astonished to find all I did was make people mad," Fletcher said.

It took him a long time to shake off fear of ethereal penalty he had believed in.

His wife ticks off the plusses of belonging to a congregation - community, a sense of security in a time of adversity, the beauty of ritual.

"The thing that puzzles me is, why does this have to be tied to a belief in things like the Garden of Eden?" Fletcher said.