Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Fewer believers, more consumers?

The recent Pew survey on American religion shows a rapid decline, from around 78% to 70% in Christian identification since 2007. Catholics are dropping, as are evangelicals. While 10% of all Americans were ex-Catholic then, now it's 13%. Tim Rutten wonders how much evangelical and right-wing politics may be to blame for this decline. Unaffiliated respondents have increased by 6.7% the past period, to nearly 30% After all, independent-leaning, alienated, skeptical voters (like me) are often repulsed by pious rhetoric and cant. "Well over one-third of all Americans under 49 now are unaffiliated and a substantial number of them profess a complete disinterest in religion or its values."

This surge transcends the usual ethnic, class, regional, or traditional boundaries. If not for relentless immigration and concomitant population growth, the Catholic and probably some Pentecostal and fundamentalist churches would show deeper drops. The tilt of the Church in my region tips now about 70% Latino, for instance, with large Filipino and Vietnamese contingents. Sure, the South does still boast more believers, and cities more their cohort of "spiritual but not religious," a phenomenon now spreading beyond the privileged pockets on the East and West Coasts and I suppose college towns. The report sums up: "People who self-identify as atheists or agnostics (about 7% of all U.S. adults), as well as those who say their religion is 'nothing in particular,' now account for a combined 22.8% of U.S. adults – up from 16.1% in 2007. The growth of the 'nones' has been powered in part by religious switching. Nearly one-in-five U.S. adults (18%) were raised as Christians or members of some other religion, but now say they have no religious affiliation." This cheers me, if oddly for me.

For I study religion, I value its contributions, I suspect its assertions, and I analyze its functions. I teach a course in its comparative aspects, open to students online nationwide whom I will never likely meet. I ask them to discuss their own orientation. Most do so happily, revealing usually about one or two articulate but disenfranchised voices, maybe half who are more or less observant of some form, and the rest divided between those who have been raised Catholic, Baptist, or Methodist but who have a wavering or flexible attitude towards the tenets with which they were inculcated. Sometimes I get a pagan or two, a Jewish or Muslim student, too. A Buddhist, too, but so far all who blend a vague sort of aspiration with New Age, from a Christian background. So, they match Pew data above.

But some often bristle, being mainly mainline Christians still, when I challenge them about the growth of "nones," or when I confront them to move out of a comfort zone and critically respond to those who address the drawbacks of, well, every religious system we study over the eight weeks. I offer the positive and the negative aspects of the major faiths--even if the textbook and lectures on the online shell try to be very neutral, I cannot be so as a teacher who wants students to stretch their limits. Therefore, the new data I will have to offer my next class will continue to push their boundaries. As we turn a less religious nation, however, as Rutten concludes, we must all question another transformation: autonomic absorption of so many Americans into the consumer society, as we face a consumerist, capitalist force "that so often seems more powerful than any religion."

Rutten asks: "If you live in a world that begs you to choose from among 600 types of potato chips and 400 brands of hummus, why not faith? Whether a society that idolizes that kind of choice really is a better place than the one we’re struggling with now, will be something we’ll all discover." Amen.

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