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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Religion as we know it

At the Huffington Post, Gary Laderman of Emory University writes: "The Rise of Religious 'Nones' Indicates the End of Religion as We Know It." Excerpt:
I have seen the future of religion in America, and its name is "none." Yet another survey just recently published and publicized is emphasizing what is now an undeniable trend on the American religious landscape: increasing, if not historic, numbers of Americans are claiming no religious affiliation when asked to state their religious identity, and more and more are embracing "spirituality" as an alternative religious brand that is not tradition-specific, but is more in line with the democratic spirit of individual tastes.
Here's a UC Berkeley release about the survey: "Americans and religion increasingly parting ways, new survey shows." Excerpt:
Religious affiliation in the United States is at its lowest point since it began to be tracked in the 1930s, according to analysis of newly released survey data by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Duke University. Last year, one in five Americans claimed they had no religious preference, more than double the number reported in 1990.
And a chart, showing religious non-affiliation has gone from 5% to 20% over four decades:



For my part, I've bucked the trend, transitioning in the last few years from lifelong non-religionist to practicing Episcopalian. There are a number of reasons I did this, a story for another day. But I would like to take issue with some of Laderman's take on all this. I think the worthwhile story he tells, about religion in flux, is very different from the implication of his end-of-religion tone ("its name is 'none'"). Excerpts:
...popular culture in America rules our spiritual lives and is a more important source of wisdom, morality, transcendence, and meaning, than the traditional institutions like the church that used to provide these religious elements. Films, music, the internet, television, literature--these now are just as important, if not more important, than the teachings found in sacred texts and theological pronouncements for the younger generation as well as baby boomers. Reality TV and rap, Harry Potter and the Super Bowl provide Americans with moral dramas and existential ideals these days, and can make a profound impact on the lives of followers. Organized religion is clearly losing its authority and relevancy in the day-to-day worlds of Americans, and so those forces that predominate in our culture, such as new media, entertainment, and information technologies are now shaping spiritual sensibilities and sacred values.
...we are a nation of consumers and American desires for food and toys and clothes and healthcare and travel are finally refashioning the spiritual marketplace as well. "Have it your way," a famous jingle once used by a popular fast food joint is the mantra of the religious moment. If you don't want pickles or mustard on your burger, you can customize your order; if you don't want institutional ritual or dogma in your spiritual life, you can customize your own religious choices and activities. This is truly an expression of the democratic spirit undergirding so much of the American way of life. The individual is in this sense a spiritual entrepreneur who can be innovative, imaginative, and ingenious in her pursuit of creating a meaningful religious life. 
...the rise of the "nones" surely suggests it is the end of religion as we know it. Forget churches; forget priests and pastors; forget the Bible; forget organized religion generally. What is sacred are no longer conventional objects like a cross, a singular religious identity like being a Methodist, nor activities like going to church or prayer. Instead, the religious worlds in the contemporary and future United States are robust and capacious, providing an abundance of spiritual possibilities found in unexpected places like drum circles and meditation exercises, sports events and other expressions from popular culture. It is a brave new world for religious Americans who are increasingly unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions.
Me: I've never liked the "as we know it" dodge. Of course things are always ending "as we know" them, which is very different from ending altogether. Moreover, isn't one way of "customizing" your religious practices by joining a religious body of some kind? After all, there are many different ones to choose from, as has long been the case in the United States, and the proliferation continues. And don't some people see being affiliated with a church as a corrective against some of the excesses and inanities of the popular culture? And haven't some churches been quite adept at using media and information technologies? And as the "nones" are on the rise, isn't it an act of nonconformity to break with their growing ranks?

In short, I think Laderman undervalues organized religion, and based on the comments from Huffington Post readers, in so doing he's preaching to the choir.

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