Saturday, January 12, 2013


If you look at just the first minute of this Jonathan Haidt talk on “Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence,” you will notice the shift that has been happening in the West away from religion. Many more people in the TED audience felt they were “spiritual” than the number of people who felt they were “religious.” Of course, you can feel like you are neither or feel like you are both. But it highlights an interesting phenomenon—the decline of religion in the West. 

According to a Newsweek article in April 2009 entitled “The End of Christian America,” between 1990 and 2009 the number of Americans who claim to have no religious affiliation has doubled from 8 to 15 percent. The number of people who self-identify as Christians has fallen 10 percentage points from 86 to 76%. And the number of atheists or agnostics has increased by almost four times from 1 million to 3.6 million.

Sociologists, theologians, historians, and others have noticed this trend over the past two decades (and some slightly longer). At first people confined the analysis to Europe thinking that the U.S. might be an exception but, as the numbers show, the same phenomenon is happening in the U.S., albeit somewhat later than the phenomenon in the UK. The evidence is very strong for the decades-long decline in American religiousness especially since it comes from multiple sources—academic polls, journals, denominational surveys, newspapers, religious think tank research, etc.

Originally, I remember religious historians and sociologists would talk of the decline of particular part of Christian America – mainline Protestants and their decline in the 1970s. Other Christian groups, such as Pentecostals or evangelicals in general, would say “Yes, Christianity or religion is declining but not in my church and not in my denomination. It’s not declining with us. It’s declining with them.” But now, even Pentecostals and evangelicals show declining numbers across the U.S. Catholic churches, conservative evangelical churches—they are all in decline among US membership.

Even in my own life just among my own friends with whom I grew up, it’s obvious. A majority of my friends who used to attend church no longer do (I believe this has to do with the diversified group of friends I have; this would not be true with a skewed or biased group of friends). If you took a random sample of my childhood friends you’d probably find a strong percentage (say at least 20%) of those who did believe in God, no longer do. The church, if it ever did something for them or meant something to them, no longer holds any meaning.

Usually, in my experience, instead of church groups looking inward to explore what is the issue, a church might point a finger of blame in the wrong direction. In the book Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity . . . and Why It Matters, the authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons reach the conclusion that people reject and feel rejected by Christianity due to an image problem with Christianity, and that what is needed is a type of revised public image campaign for Christianity. Researcher Diana Butler Bass says their statistics are good and helpful, but their analysis is weak and their interpretation show a bias towards a conservative evangelical social agenda.

So what is the real issue because there is an issue? Why has religion failed for so many people according to those people? What is this shift and where is it going? There are a number of books that have talked about this shift from different perspectives: Brian McLaren in A New Kind of Christianity, Harvard’s Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith, Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence, and Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion. In Diana Butler Bass’s book, she points out 3 great awakenings in U.S. and Canadian church history. According to her, the First Great Awakening (1730-1760) “marked the end of European styles of church organization and created an experiential, democratic, pan-Protestant community of faith called evangelicalism.” The Second Great Awakening (1800-1830) marked the end of Calvinistic theological dominance and the growth of the understanding of free will resulting “in a voluntary system for church membership and benevolent work.” The Third Great Awakening (1890-1920) brought the growth of the social gospel movement with its progressive politics and the growth of the Pentecostal movement with its focus on miraculous transformations.

Bass believes the growth of the social group dubbed the “religious right” in the 1980s was not an awakening but rather a reaction to an awakening and an experimentation that happened in the 60’s and 70’s leading to the election of Jimmy Carter, a leader who embodied many of he aspects of the spiritual awakening. (What’s funny is that every single political or historical analysis of Jimmy Carter’s presidency I’ve seen has framed him as a failure). One person interviewed in Butler’s book says that Jimmy Carter was elected to tinker with the system but not to really change it. The interviewee didn’t feel that there was enough grassroots momentum or consensus on issues like environmentalism, multi-faith understanding, justice, or the global community for Jimmy Carter to be effective. “Not enough people had converted to the new vision.” And in 1980 the difference between Reagan and Carter could not have been clearer. America chose Reagan, beginning a different, diverging period in the spiritual climate of the U.S. However, it seems to be going back in the same direction in was going in the 60’s and 70’s. There seems to be a Fourth Great Awakening.

But first what is an awakening? Bass highlights 5 parts of an awakening.

1.     Crisis of legitimacy – People feel like they can no longer sustain the common set of religious understandings they hold or were holding.

2.     Cultural distortion – People switch from thinking the problem is personal failure and feel there is an institutional problem.

3.     New vision – People and communities begin to articulate a new understanding of organisations, practices, beliefs, etc.

4.     Follow a new path – People begin to experiment, create, edit, innovate as they search for a new way.

5.     Institutional transformation – This tipping point happens when the innovators win over a majority of people so that institutions begin to change.

As this awakening continues to take shape, I want to highlight one difference between its form in Europe and its form in the U.S. and Canada. Bass quotes two polls in her book. Here is a Gallup poll from 1999. Americans were asked how they viewed themselves. Look at the answers.

Spiritual only                                                 30%

Religious only                                                54%

Both spiritual and religious                         6%

Neither spiritual nor religious                     9%

Now, in 2009, Newsweek used Princeton Survey Research to conduct the same survey (at least this part of the survey). Here are their results.

Spiritual only                                                 30%

Religious only                                                9%

Both spiritual and religious                         48%

Neither spiritual nor religious                     9%

Now, I know it wasn’t the same survey group and may not have been the same methodology and the question may have been phrased differently; there may have been different demographics and cultural linguistic shifts (like “spiritual” becoming more accepted) during the time. I would still like to look at the difference. It’s as if a majority of the “religious only” people jumped into the “Both spiritual and religious” bin. Why is that important? I think it’s important because in the UK, my guess is that the largest percentage would be “spiritual only.” I don’t have research to back it up but it’s my experience. It suggest that, at least right now in the US (I can’t prognosticate) there are people trying to combine the two—the religious and the spiritual—and begin to “faith their practices” as much as they practice their faiths. This is a particular characteristic of the spiritual climate in the States.

I won’t define what this means for the U.S. and where this will end up or go. But it’s clear to see the movement is away from a culture of religious belief systems. And don’t think this is particular to Christianity. There are similar different-sized movements in Judaism, Islam, and even Hinduism, to name a few. It’s moving towards more openness and more inclusiveness. It’s moving to greater understanding of justice and environmentalism. It’s moving toward spiritual practices and away from belief systems.


PrajK said...

Interesting post. One more book I would add to yours is Ross Douthat's 'Bad Religion.'

Victor said...

Yes, I think you emailed me about it. Thanks! There are a few more books similar to it as well. :-)