US Religious Landscape
ABC News posts this piece introducing the latest Pew Forum Research Survey (the premier forum for this work) on US religious identity in America. Robert Putnam (he of social capital fame) shared some of his research due to come out in his new book American Grace (2009).
ABC focuses on the decline in religious observation among the young (only one segment of the much larger report).
Historically, the percentage of Americans who said they had no religious affiliation (pollsters refer to this group as the “nones”) has been very small — hovering between 5 percent and 10 percent. However, Putnam says the percentage of “nones” has now skyrocketed to between 30 percent and 40 percent among younger Americans…This trend started in the 1990s and continues through today. It includes people in both Generation X and Y.
Though they are quick to add:
While these young “nones” may not belong to a church, they are not necessarily atheists.
“Many of them are people who would otherwise be in church,” Putnam said. “They have the same attitidues and values as people who are in church, but they grew up in a period in which being religious meant being politically conservative, especially on social issues. Putnam says that in the past two decades, many young people began to view organized religion as a source of “intolerance and rigidity and doctrinaire political views,” and therefore stopped going to church.”
Now, many of those who’ve become unaffiliated say they’ve done so because they’ve stopped believing in the teachings of their former religion. Many also become unaffiliated due to disillusionment or disenchantment with religious people or organizations, saying that religious people are hypocritical and judgmental rather than sincere or forgiving, or that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality.
We do not tend to see, however, a kind of principled fundamental rejection of a religious worldview on the part of many of these newly unaffiliated people. For instance, fewer than a quarter of the newly unaffiliated say they became so because they think that science proves that religion is just superstition. And upwards of a third of those who have become unaffiliated give evidence of being in the midst of, or of continuing, a spiritual search, saying that they just haven’t yet found the right religion for them.
The ABC report ends with Putnam cataloging the history of the United States as a religiously “entrepreneurial” nation, a kind of free marketplace of spiritual ideas and argues that this new “nones” effect could lead to another round of religious evolution.
So there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on here, and let me try to piece this together.
This is an American survey and whatever we mean by the term exceptional (debated on our league here and here), America has to date been an exception to the decline in religious trend seen in the rest of the (post)industrial West (plus Japan). Some will interpret this finding (not without some validity) as simply the US ‘catching up’ to the rest of Europe, Canada, Australia, etc in terms of decline. Though in that case, that would put the US as an exception to much of the rest of the world where religion is booming (Latin America, China, Middle East, Africa). The End of Christian America read on the situation in other words.
An alternate scenario (laid out by Putnam) is that there will be a religious revival. Harold Bloom’s uber-brilliant book The American Religion (from the 90s) argued that the true American Religion was revival/personal spiritual experience. Historians label periods of Religious Awakenings (the 2nd more than any other defined America as Norman Hatch showed); there really according to Bloom has simply been on/off periods of Revival (beginning, maturation, decline, to next Revival beginning as the cycle begins anew) throughout the whole history of America.
Revivalism while potent is often theologically weak/illiterate. This is where from a religious perspective, the numbers game is a really unhelpful criterion for health/disease debate within the church body. It also explains the ease of changing membership in American religious praxis (highlighted yet again for the umpeenth trillion time in the newest Pew Survey). Since groups can’t hold onto members–or are afraid they can’t–they put emphasis on social good works and community membership (Putnam’s Bowling Alone fear if religious membership drops significantly).
Bloom’s further point–which the Pew report seems in some ways to be backing up–is that the revivalism would generally become less and less moored to traditional religious bodies who could no longer contain the internal inconsistency of doctrine plus personal spiritual experience. The latter would grow too powerful and overtake the former. Bloom then rather dumbly labeled this phenomenon Gnosticism (a peculiarly loaded term with its own doctrine/interpretation, undercutting Bloom’s own point).
To the degree the revivalism/religious experience route is Gnostic it is because (in Christian theological terms) it refuses the experience, if you like, that comes from being Crucified in your soul. The Christian mystical tradition argues that the true path is union with Christ’s reality (including his death but that as a doorway into his Resurrection). This is not altogether different in Buddhism. i.e. The Gnostic-lite impulse is that people will only be in it as long as it feels good and then will jet at the first/second round of real suffering (‘this trip has gone sour bro”).
So let’s ignore the Gnostic label but keep in mind Bloom’s basic idea about revivalism/personal experience which I think is extremely relevant. More on that in a sec.
2)The modern to postmodern shift.
While we all have been schooled in the secularization thesis of modernity–i.e. as a country becomes more modern it becomes less religious–the reality is secularization only takes off with the entrance of post-modernity not modernity. Looking at the growing ‘modern’ nations on the planet: religion is generally booming there. e.g. South Korea, Taiwan, China, Brazil, Turkey, etc.
It is Nietzsche who posed the most challenging critique of Christianity not David Hume (and his current descendants The ‘New’ Atheists….meet the New Atheists same as the old Atheists I say). Actually this critique applies to all religions in general not just Christianity–though for obvious reasons of FN’s context that was the one he honed in on the most. Nietzsche didn’t try to argue that Christianity was intellectually bankrupt (ugh how modern of those people) but rather socially useless and corrupt. The New Atheist route takes too much time and mental effort. You have to believe things and accept a whole philosophical attitude–it’s too Thomistic really. And it too suffers from the same basic critique Br. Frederick made. Here (from Nietzsche’s pov) it’s meet the new Atheist boss, same as the old Christian boss.
Now that’s a critique with some actual cojones to it.
Nietzsche’s genealogical turn particularly in his work on the social creation of Morals is long term a more damning critique that generally Christianity has not answered. Hence when nations turn more postmodern (post-imperial, post-colonial) then it dies on the vine. See Europe and now increasingly “left coast” America.
Now I’m not the Nietzsche expert (I’ll defer to James if I’m wrong on this one) but the individualization he sought growing out the critique of genealogy was not I imagine what it has become in late capitalist society (particularly in the US). Where Nietzsche desired the flying of birds of prey, we got a flock of seagulls instead.
3)1 + 2
The Gen X and Gen Yers are the first postmodern generation in American history. They were raised (or in many cases not raised) by the pioneers of social-cultural postmodernism The Boomers. The Boomers (by and large) rejected their traditional religious heritage and as a result did not often bring any such upbringing to their children. The X and Yers. (Millenials, Echo Boomers, whatever term you prefer).
As such we should expect both the larger patterns of secularization via postmodernity and American excpetionalism to hold (an American postmodernity among the youth). i.e. They will be open to religious experience and a form of Christianity (or Judaism or Buddhism) that works within the basic parameters of postmodern value systems. This is exactly what I see in the report. i.e. In the Pew study the emphasis on not having rules but being spiritual, not being hypocrtical or overly identified with a poltical ideology (the Religious Right) betokens the postmodern impulse while simultaneously not a rejection of a religious worldview (the Nietzschean postmodern route) and as Putnam says even a willingness to explore under the right conditions.
For anyone in this vocation, the key point is to get younger folks to realize that any actual real spirituality comes through discipline. Discipline is different than rules. Discipline is freely chosen and committed to at the core of one’s being. Discipline is one’s refuge (in Buddhist language) up to and including the point at which you no longer choose the discipline but it has taken you. It chooses you.
Otherwise the shift will continue either towards secularized postmodernity and/or churches that go pop-revivalist plus postmodern ‘non-judgmentalism’ thinking (foolishly) that all of the values expressed by the young in this survey of a healthy spiritual nature. They are not. If there is a shift towards that revivalism it will be the kind of watered down American Christianity I’ve come to know and hate (religiously) however much I may (somewhat cynically) think it is has some value politically.