Response to Pew Report on Rising Number of “nones” with Religious Affiliation: really, just one (big) thought

Earlier this week, the Pew Report on Religion announced its perceived most important result: the number of religiously unaffiliated increased in the last 5 years from just over 15% to just under 20%. Perhaps the most valuable description here is that what was formerly an intuition for most people is now quantified. For those wanting to know more about the increasing movement in the unaffiliated, there was a sidebar that offered some interpretation.

To me, this sidebar was informative, and leaves us with an impression that there are powers at work that will keep rolling through North America, almost without stalling, inexorably, and lending to the notion that the extinguishing of religious affiliation is a foregone conclusion. That impression needs to be examined, although not for the sake of preserving religions per se. Of course, some people may not agree with the impression, and what follows will be superfluous. Such readers may want to stick around anyway.

The sidebar observes four different theories to explain the increase, and they are as follows:

  1. Political backlash, i.e., people reject the attempts of organized religions to influence social institutions like marriage or school curriculum, and are repelled by institutions like the 1970’s “Religious Right” and others that were media savvy for their day and remarkably well organized for influencing elections and sitting politicians.
  2. Delays in Marriage; here, the idea is proposed that those who wait for matrimony (into their 30’s?) are less likely to participate in religious services or commit to any social institution.
  3. Broad social disengagement; here, there is larger trend, made famous by Putnam’s text, “Bowling Alone”, in which, just not religious organizations, but many social institutions are experiencing declines throughout the generations in participation, resulting in lower social capital and a remarkable decrease in communal experience.
  4. Secularization. I must admit: I thought this theory was moribund, and perhaps the editors/writers of the sidebar felt they needed to include this. Yet, even their data- and they admit as much- give further evidence the theory is lifeless. In short, the theory argues that as the overall economic/financial health of the society improves, their religiosity decreases; if the economic health is poor, the religiosity of a nation increases. In the US, the trend continues unabated: the GDP improves, and the nation’s religiosity increases. Why the theory was included doesn’t have any support from the data.

So, my one thought all along has been, how do the people respond to such forces? It needs to be made clear. Survey data doesn’t give us such information. Again, the theories proposed above don’t offer much direct engagement with the surveys or specifically with the respondents. So…

I would make a few suggestions for your reading, and such fall under one big thought: people already have some sense of mission in their lives. They may not use, or even resist, the use of the term “mission.” But for those who are thriving, they have some sense of purpose to their lives. They may not have a religious, let alone Christian, sense to that mission, but they’ve got it. I will defer to another day for a discussion of what is going on for those “who do not thrive.” But, for now, I want to attend to those who are thriving.

For those are the people who are negotiating and determining what kinds of constraints and enablements they encounter when they consider religious affiliation. Religious affiliation doesn’t possess, in and of itself, some social hydraulic that pre-determines an outcome socially. Nor does it hold some kind of special power that induces a unique psychological state that human persons are compelled to act upon.

My guess is that most readers are following me: in other words, I’m trying to make sure we preserve the capacities and dignities that all human persons possess, while denying that the properties and powers of religious affiliation and its related institutional structures will/must produce a specific emotional and social status or produce a certain allegiance.

Let’s not abandon the very real capacities that all human persons have for inner deliberations, of the many kind that exist, and to determine, in response to religious affiliations, how to intersect in a fruitful manner that accounts for their personal sense of mission/purpose.

On the one hand, attaching ourselves to the different theories above concurrently hands off our latent powers to reflect upon the social and cultural context one finds one self in, and merges such without any real consideration of what it means to be human. On the other hand, by keeping a confident hold on such remarkable properties leaves room for learning, testing, a “changing of one’s mind,” and the possibilities that one’s personal projects can fallibly include religious affiliation: and still retain a sense of mission that coheres with that religious affiliation: and activate the powers that accompany a religious commitment.

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