Steamboat's spiritual leaders guide 'Death of Religion' discussion |

Steamboat’s spiritual leaders guide ‘Death of Religion’ discussion

Nikki Katthain, left, and Jenna Miller place flowers on a cross during a sunrise Easter Mass in Gondola Square. (File photo by John F. Russell)
Scott Franz

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A community discussion on the “Death of Religion” was held Thursday with Christian priests and preachers and Islamic, Buddhist and Jewish leaders participating in the event, which was hosted by Exploring the Sacred, a local group formed 15 years ago in Steamboat Springs to help heal a divided society.

Exploring the Sacred founder Marchele McCarthy launched the discussion with statistics that showed 25 percent of Americans claim no religion, which is up from 6 percent in 1991, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

“The younger generation are even less religiously affiliated,” said McCarthy, who added that 39 percent of young adults age 18 to 29 don’t claim a religion.

The spiritual leaders discussed the reasons why people are turning from religion and how to get them back.

Anchor Way Baptist Church Pastor Andrew Werley said evangelical congregations are gaining more members, while Father Ernest Bayer, of Holy Name Catholic Church, admitted the child sex abuse scandal has followers disillusioned.

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“I don’t blame people for leaving when they hear some of those stories,” Bayer said.

Werley attributed the rise in evangelicals to a sign that people are “longing for the word of God, again.”

Psychotherapist Karen Post, from A Course in Miracles, said the interest in evangelicals may be more about how humans don’t like ambiguity.

“Fundamentalists draw more people because they’re very constant,” Post said. “In the rapidly shifting seas, there’s a ‘reaching out’ for consistency.”

Larry Klingman, from the Har Mishpacha Jewish Community, agreed. He said, while young people are not going to Hebrew School and filling temple pews like they did in the past, they are reaching out spiritually.

“There’s a big group of younger people getting together and meeting and celebrating holidays and exploring societal issues,” Klingman said.  

The religious leaders present confirmed that traditional religion’s bias against homosexuality is indeed one of the top issues driving away younger congregants.

“I follow Jesus because of how he demonstrated how he loved,” said Tim Selby, of Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church. “When we become known more for what we’re against, that’s not a compelling message.”

The United Methodist Church, internationally, recently confirmed a ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, although most American churches voted against it.

Selby said the top three reasons why young people age 18 to 35 don’t belong to a religion is they believe it’s “anti-science, anti-gay and narrow-minded.”

Islam practitioner Steve Aigner has participated in three different Muslim groups in Ames, Iowa, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Steamboat. He said Islam is doing well in large cities like Philadelphia, but smaller towns make it harder to gather as a group.

“There’s concern they might become a target,” Aigner said. He added most of the Muslims in Steamboat come from Senegal as visa workers.

As for the latest trend of Americans leaving organized religions, Reverend Catie Greene, of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, noted that history shows there’s been a breakdown and resurgence of religions about every 500 years.  She cited the Protestant reformation about 500 years ago, the East-West Christian schism about 500 years before that, then the shuffling of the Roman Empire before that, and then, of course, when Jesus branched off from the Jewish faith.

“We’re in the midst of a reformative period. It bears paying attention to,” Greene said.

All the spiritual leaders agreed that listening is one thing that all religions can do better.

“Stop talking at (young people) all the time. Listen to them and not presume to know the answer,” said Tim Olstead, founder of the Buddhist Center of Steamboat. “Part of them will inherently seek out spiritual enrichment in their life.”

Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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