Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Americans without Religion

When I was born in 1962, about 5 percent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation. Now, according to the latest Pew poll, that number is up to 20 percent, including 32 percent of people aged 18 to 29. According to this poll, a majority of these "nones" believe in God; only 12 percent of this group are atheists, and 17 percent agnostics. That means professed non-believers make up only 6 percent of the American population. This is strikingly different from the pattern in Europe, where more people belong to a church than believe in God; one poll I saw about 20 years ago said that 90% of French people are Catholics and 50% are atheists.

So why have young American believers avoided joining a church? The Pew study's authors offer several possible explanations:
One theory is that the young adults grew disillusioned with organized religion when evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches became so active in conservative political causes, like opposition to homosexuality and abortion.

Another theory is that the shift merely reflects a broader trend away from social and community involvement, the phenomenon dubbed “bowling alone” by Robert D. Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard University.

Another explanation is that the United States is simply following the trend toward secularization already seen in many economically developed countries, like Australia and Canada and some in Europe.
Personally I think one reason is that modern churches are creepy places where nobody who has not grown up in one could possibly feel at home. You are supposed to speak in a whisper, and everything is squeaky clean, like the sort of living room where you are afraid to touch the furniture, the only flowers are white lilies that look like symbols of the purity you conspicuously lack, and the whole atmosphere just screams, "unless you are an insider, you are not welcome here." I would also point out that while most Americans believe in God, only a minority accept all the major tenets of any particular religion. I know several Christians who think the Trinity is, as one put it, "schizophrenic crazy talk." Since many Christian ministers still think it is important to teach some theology to their flocks, you can end up like I once did, going to a Methodist wedding and having to sit through a lecture on the Trinity. The only way to avoid this is to go Unitarian, where the absolute mushiness of belief is almost as annoying as the Nicene Creed, and everything is run by earnest old hippies who want to save the poor.

Another reason is simply that people who don't go to church are more comfortable telling people that they have no religion; it used to be that most people who "seldom or never" went to church said they belonged to a denomination, but now more say they have none.

But I agree with the Pew authors that the generalized decline in community life is a major factor. People used to belong to churches for the same reason they belonged to the Elks or the Moose, that is, because they felt that life was best lived in groups. It was by belonging to organizations that they found companionship, support, entertainment, and identity. True, some of the other people in the group were annoying, but that was life -- better to put up with a few jerks than to live a lonely life without belonging. One of the most striking things about America over the past 40 years has been the decline in such organizations, and indeed in the whole phenomenon of living in groups. Now we live alone, in our huge, luxurious houses, entertained by television and our computers, and we would rather be by ourselves than be in a group of people some of whom annoy us.

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