How to think yourself out of – or into – religious affiliation

More hard news today from the handwringing number-crunchers down at the Department of Declining American Protestantism: It isn’t that Americans are necessarily less religious as a whole, so much as that they conceive of themselves as existing wholly apart from religious belonging in an age in which affiliation seems to count for little.

Make sense?

In “American Religion: Contemporary Trends,” author Mark Chaves argues that over the last generation or so, religious belief in the U.S. has experienced a “softening” that effects everything from whether people go to worship services regularly to whom they marry. Far more people are willing to say they don’t belong to any religious tradition today than in the past, and signs of religious vitality may be camouflaging stagnation or decline….

Today, as many as 20 percent of all Americans say they don’t belong to any religious group, Chaves found, compared with around 3 percent in the 1950s. Yet, those people aren’t necessarily atheists, agnostics or others. Instead, about 92 percent of Americans still profess belief in God, they just don’t use religion as part of their identity.

“It used to be that even the most marginally active people wouldn’t say they have no religion, they’d say I’m Catholic or I’m Baptist or I’m Methodist or whatever,” Chaves said. “That’s not the case today.”

To wit:

“Forty or 50 years ago, it was almost a form of deviance not to be religious,” [University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright] said. “When you take away that external form of motivation, people either drop away or they find their own kind of motivation.”

Chaves agrees, saying churches are likelier today to consist largely of a “hard core” of believers, and to have fewer casual or lukewarm members that used to swell the ranks.

“That’s what’s changed,” he said. “Certainly as a percentage of their time, it’s less important than it was.”

So it isn’t just a hazy matter of the lack of affiliation; there’s been a shift, and we no longer need to be affiliated at all. In which case, to some (i.e., the keepers of the church keys) it might seem to be the proper time to grease down that slippery slope.

Perhaps this is simply the logical extension of that whole Bowling Alone thing we were warned about so many years ago – what’s it been now, a decade? You can see how declining participation in civic life (with how much hope now for reinvention?) would cut in just this way: don’t participate in something for long enough, and eventually the seemingly immaterial (Baptist? Methodist? Catholic?) becomes truly immaterial. To the generations whose identity seems to depend on the very rejection of identity as defining (“I’m not an Episcopalian – I’m a citizen of the universe”), belonging to one club or the other just appears to be … well, too clubby. So skip it, and go clubbing instead.

So that’s one way of thinking about religious thinking. From the other end of the spectrum, here’s another, by Mark Vernon, who holds that fundamentalistic religion (he guardedly uses the term) is not about home-grown or endemic traits anymore: that in fact it’s about performative principles in action, and hewing to rules.

Scott Appleby told of a Jewish writer who observed that the practice of his religion has shifted from being mimetic – learnt from his family with the air he breathed – to being performative, essentially a case of doing right by a rule book. The shift happens as a result of the dislocation and alienation people experience as they are buffeted by rising pluralism and increased mobility.

The change might be generalised to other faiths, the performative approach placing great store on specifics – in other contexts, I imagined the huge importance that wearing a veil or a crucifix comes to carry. More subtly, faith stops feeling like a way of life that holds you, and becomes a way of life you must hold onto. Not far on from that are feelings about being at odds with the world, and then that the world is at odds with you.

A similar pattern is seen with tokens, those moral issues – abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia – that are not about what you do, because the fundamentalist/conservative is not going to admit those themselves, but rather about what you believe. (Incidentally, it seemed pretty clear to me that scientistic conservatism has its own tokens too, in its loathing for beliefs like creationism. No doubt, there are ‘liberalist’ tokens as well – the absolutisation of rights, perhaps.)

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