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Austin Cline

Faith in Religion vs. Faith in Institutions

By April 10, 2013

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Religious Pluralism
Religious Pluralism
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The number of people who report no religious affiliation - "none" on surveys - has increased dramatically in recent years. In the 1950s it was just 2% of the US population and in the 1970s it was still only about 7%, but today it's close to 20% and growing. These "nones" aren't all atheists, they aren't all skeptics, and they aren't even all completely irreligious - they are just indifferent enough to religion that they don't belong to any religious organization or church. So what do they all have in common and what is driving the growth of this group?

One argument is that that the common factor isn't religion, but institutions. More and more people are reporting no religious affiliation not because they are getting less theistic and more skeptical, but rather because they are disenchanted with institutions generally. Lots of people in America have also become disenchanted with many other institutions like government, schools, corporations, etc. So maybe the decline in religious affiliation is simply one aspect of this larger sociological trend?

Michael Gerson writes:

Though the nones are varied, and occasionally confused, their overall growth has been swift and unprecedented. This has occasioned scholarly disagreement over the causes. Clearly, the social stigma against being religiously unaffiliated has faded. America used to have plenty of Protestant agnostics and Catholic agnostics -- people who identified with a faith tradition culturally but not theologically. Such cultural attachment has become less expected and less common. But the decline of religious conformity is itself a major social development, requiring some explanation.

One theory: The accelerated growth of the nones coincided with the rise of the religious right in the 1990s, leading some scholars to assert a connection. Though causality is hard to establish, many nones hold a very dim view of religious conservatives -- asserting that churches are too focused on rules and money and too involved with politics. It is easy to imagine some of the unaffiliated looking at the movement led by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and concluding: "If this is religion, I want no part in it."

But the trend appears to run deeper. As Lugo points out, declining trust in religious institutions since the 1990s has been accompanied by declining trust in most institutions (with the notable exception of the military). Confidence in government and big business has simultaneously fallen -- and the public standing of both is lower than that of the church. Americans may be less affiliated with religious organizations because they have grown generally more individualistic and skeptical of authority.

At the moment, linking disaffiliation from religious institutions with broader disenchantment from institutions generally is speculation. It sounds plausible, but it shouldn't be too hard to do a survey which reveals just how strong of a link, if any, really exists. In fact, the data might already exist in a couple of surveys and it's just waiting to be extracted.

If the connection exists, it would strongly suggest that the rise is Nones is not, at least not yet, a growth of secularization in America. A person disenchanted with church because of its institutional nature and/or behavior but who still accepts (man of) the religion's traditional dogmas, beliefs, and practices is not a person who is advancing the development of a more secular American society (at least not much or not directly).

It might, however, lead to that sort of secularization in another generation or two. The more people there are who live independently of religious institutions, whatever their beliefs, the more children there will be who are raised outside those institutions. Whatever religious beliefs they are raised with, those beliefs probably won't be a strong and deep as they are with kids who have had church integrated into their lives.

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