(RNS) “Religion plays a less important role in American life.” Or maybe, “Religion declines as powerful source of American public authority.”
I doubt those headlines would have garnered the attention the Pew Center recently received with its subtitle “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population."
This is no criticism of Pew. It gets full credit for bringing religious demographics to the public’s attention. And the story of Christian decline is an obvious hook, as is the story of the rapidly growing number of “nones,” people with no particular religious affiliation.
But behind the story of Christian decline and the rise of “nones” is a long-standing debate about what religion theorists call “secularization,” the broad process by which religion gradually loses its social influence.
In the mid-20th century, secularization theory was integrated into the story of Western progress. Modernity -- including individual choice, rationalism, empiricism and science -- would march forward and religion, alongside traditionalism more generally, would recede as other kinds of ideas, located in other institutions, filled many of the roles religion once filled.
Europe was the dominant case. In many European countries (Britain and the Netherlands are excellent examples), most people stopped attending religious services. They might have retained their ethnic or social ties to religion, but religion was simply less important in their everyday lives. Their governments were explicitly nonsectarian.
America was the prominent exception. America was modern in many ways, with plenty of individual choice in democracy, capitalism and consumerism, plus a high degree of rationalism, empiricism and science, at least among educated elites. America also had a nonsectarian government, though religion’s input was hard to pin down. But Americans continued to be religious in ways Europeans were not.
By the last two decades of the 20th century, secularization theories were in retreat for a number of good reasons. Most people did not stop being religious in the sense that they still had beliefs, intuitions, feelings and practices they defined as sacred. Modernity had not pushed spirituality out of their lives in America, and maybe not even in Britain or the Netherlands.
The rise of the religious right in America was another blow to secularization. If America was becoming less religious, why was there an explicitly religious political powerhouse?
Finally, the rest of the world was getting more religious, not less, and global population was increasing outside of America and Europe.
Secularization theory faded, but the recent Pew report is not the only 21st-century evidence that religion is, in fact, losing ground in America. The General Social Survey shows the same, a strikingly large, rise among “nones” in the last couple of decades.
Some will argue that this decline describes the wrong definition of religion. Religion, they say, is about a personal connection to God, and that kind of religion -- or spirituality -- remains strong. And it is true many Americans still have experiences they interpret as religious.
But religion can also be thought of as a set of group practices, beliefs, ethics, texts, rituals and shared values. It is an institution comprising myriad smaller organizations. And institutional religion is ceding its hold on many individuals, especially educated elites, while playing an ever-less-important public role.
This is not news. Sociologist Mark Chaves redefined secularization as declining religious authority back in 1994. He suggested we stop worrying about whether individuals thought of themselves as religious and focus instead on religion’s social influence.
The evidence for this kind of secularization, the decline of religious authority, is everywhere. It is quaint to think of a time stores did not open and liquor was not sold on the Sabbath. But that is a small, symbolic change compared with the massive growth in individual choice at the expense of tradition, especially religious tradition.
Social roles for women, for people of color and for those who are today called LGBT were strongly circumscribed by tradition just a few decades ago, and that tradition was underwritten by a widely shared religious orthodoxy. Today, individual choice routinely pushes tradition, and institutional religion, aside.
Interpretation of these changes depends on one’s perspective. The triumph of choice marked by the sexual revolution was liberating, but it has also led to an enormous rise in single parenthood that is itself linked to child poverty. The sexual revolution was also a precursor for abortion rights and gay marriage; Americans disagree deeply about both. But their disagreements hinge exactly on their positions in the struggle between modern individualism and tradition.
If the rise in “nones” continues, as seems likely, liberal religious groups will continue to lose members and influence (see the Pew report) because they are already on the modernist side, meaning many of their core values are expressed in other institutions, including government. They will wrestle with modernist/traditionalist divides within their own ranks and try desperately to reinvent themselves, but history does not appear to be on their side.
Conservative religious groups will hold steady in the near term because they uphold the side of tradition, which is why fervent religious belief has become an increasingly accurate predictor of voting Republican. But be suspicious when commentators offer this as proof of conservative religion’s superiority because conservatives are gaining religious “market share.” In American society writ large, individualism is winning and conservative religion is only holding on to a relatively larger slice of a shrinking religious pie.
As for the rest of the world, religion is growing through higher birthrates. And America’s own religious ecology changes through immigration as well as through institutional and ideological change.
The picture is complex. But if it is not possible to know the ultimate outcome of the interplay between modern individualism and religious tradition, it is still important to take a step back and look at the big picture.
“In the struggle for authority with modern individualism, American religion is slowly losing.” That would be my headline for the recent Pew report. “Christians are declining in America” is just the tip of the iceberg.
(Arthur E. Farnsley II is professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of “Flea Market Jesus.”)
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