The religious landscape in the United States is changing dramatically, and now some have asked whether or not it is possible to be a Christian without believing in Jesus Christ.
According to the Pew Research Center, a survey of 35,000 American adults indicated that those who described themselves as Christians dropped 8 percent in just seven years, from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. The survey also indicated that Americans describing themselves as "religiously unaffiliated" (either as atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular") jumped from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent.
"The drop in the Christian share of the population has been driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics," Pew wrote. "Each of those large religious traditions has shrunk by approximately three percentage points since 2007."
However, Pew also noted that the demographics of American Christians are "becoming more racially and ethnically diverse."
"Non-Hispanic whites now account for smaller shares of evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics than they did seven years earlier, while Hispanics have grown as a share of all three religious groups," Pew wrote. "Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 41 percent of Catholics (up from 35 percent in 2007), 24 percent of evangelical Protestants (up from 19 percent) and 14 percent of mainline Protestants (up from 9 percent)."
Based on those trends, Trevin Wax of Religion News Service asked if it was possible to reclaim "religious affiliation" if one no longer believed in "the doctrines of the faith." He looked at the arguments for and against "cultural Christianity," which he defined as relishing "religious ritual while rejecting religious belief."
"You can't love the 'epic moral narrative' of the Bible but reject the major turning points of that storyline - like the resurrection of Jesus, without which the Apostle Paul said Christianity is futile, pitiable, and built on a massive lie," Wax wrote in his argument against cultural Christianity.
Wax argued that a distinction must be made between the gospel and morality. He thought that morality was not the center of Christianity like some have argued, but rather a "byproduct of the Christian gospel."
"The gospel is not about good people getting better but about bad people being made right with God," Wax wrote. "It's not about humans making the world a better place but the Son of God making the world his home and then dying and rising to save us."
Wax contended that once Christianity is used as a means for something else, "you trade God's agenda for your own and create a Jesus who looks an awful lot like yourself." He then turned to arguments that favored cultural Christianity.
"We shouldn't be surprised when nonbelievers admit there is a void in our secular society," Wax wrote. "Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has described our secular age as a 'disenchanted' world that leaves people longing for transcendence, something more than the 'this-world-is-all-there-is' dogma of unbelief."
Wax focused on the argument for cultural Christianity from atheist Alana Massey, who wrote a column on the topic for the Washington Post. Massy claimed that even though she didn't believe in God, she was unable to abandon her "relationship to the Episcopalian faith into which I was born."
"Believing Christians need not water down the fact that God is at the root of their commitments and traditions to accommodate nonbelievers," Massey wrote. "And nonbelievers need not make a point of telling their believing brethren that general goodwill or humanism is a better motivation for good works."
Wax then asked his children on how the church should respond to Massey's idea of "wanting to be a Christian without believing in God." Their response was quite clear.
"Neither of my kids thought it possible to be a 'true Christian' without believing in Jesus," Wax wrote. "Nevertheless, they both thought individuals like Massey should be welcomed into churches with open arms - not as brothers and sisters who are part of the same family of faith (for true spiritual kinship is only possible when we have bowed the knee to King Jesus), but as people who bear the image of God and who we pray will one day be remade into the image of Christ."
Wax admitted that Massy was right about secularism failing to "fill the longing of the human heart." However, he concluded that "cultural Christianity" will not fill that gap either.
"Only the ancient gospel story has that kind of power," Wax wrote. "And it's that gospel story that may lead to the day when the 'nones' aren't checking that box anymore."