Gongol.com Archives: September 2022

Brian Gongol

September 13, 2022

The United States of America Can you believe this?

Straight-line projections of things like social change are often woefully inaccurate ways to anticipate the future. In many cases, things change very slowly for a long time, then quite suddenly. It's no particular surprise; we are social creatures and we make many of our decisions socially. ■ Religion is no exception. Religions are often defined by things like movements, revivals, schisms, and reformations. This quality makes it very difficult to take too seriously any trend-line projections about the future of faith. ■ Notwithstanding that skepticism about forecasting, it's illuminating to look at the evolving nature of religious identification in America, because it has indeed changed considerably in just the last few decades. The Pew Research Center has examined those trends and come up with a forecast saying that -- if present trends continue -- half of Americans might be religiously unaffiliated by 2070. ■ That number is already 30%. This isn't a new development; it was observed more than a decade ago that "former Catholics" would make up the second-largest denomination in the country, if identified together. Other denominations have been in long-term decline, as well. That didn't happen overnight. ■ But whether or not organized religions maintain a hold on people and their identities, people will forever be engaged in a search for meaning, a quest for belonging, and a ritualized way of experiencing significant life events. Organized religion, whether Christian or non-Christian, has long offered a structured route to satisfying some of those basic human longings. Zoroastrianism is probably 3,500 years old. ■ "Spiritual but not religious" is now one of the most popular ways for American adults to self-identify. It seems exceptionally unlikely that it means "I have independently satisfied all of the longings which religion so often addresses". It seems much more likely that people who have become dissatisfied with organized religion are turning to other outlets -- from politics to video games, from exercise programs to role-playing -- to try to make meaning out of each life's inevitable complexities. ■ What may be especially interesting to watch is whether and how the mainline branches of Christianity respond to the growing -- demand? need? opportunity? -- for missionaries to the agnostic and the disaffiliated. Catholicism, for instance, has a long history of syncretism -- absorbing and co-opting local practices in order to entrench itself with new converts. Will orders like the Jesuits and Franciscans establish modern-day missions for the "spiritual but not religious" in American cities and suburbs? ■ Will Episcopalians offer unconventional, environmentally-themed services for those who are reluctant to use the Book of Common Prayer, but who bring a quasi-religious fervor to their regard of climate change as an overwhelming existential threat? ■ Will Presbyterians take their social justice advocacy to unconventional online platforms to mediate a pathway to reach people for whom political protests and demonstrations take the place of gathering with a community in religious worship? ■ The changing state of outward religious practice may or may not be cause for alarm -- either as it regards individuals' souls, or as it affects society at large. Religion itself may have laudable effects on a population, or it can be used as a tool of oppression. But religious instincts are almost certainly not in the same kind of decline as religious identification. ■ British rabbi and philosopher Jonathan Sacks wrote that "[R]itual is to ethics what physical exercise is to health. Medical knowledge alone will not make me healthy. That requires daily discipline, a ritual -- and religion is the matrix of ritual." What is yet to be seen is whether the sects already well-established in American culture will engage in bold adaptations at missionary outreach that match the accelerating pace of their relative decline.