In my last post on this subject, I presented a passage from my novel in progress where two characters were talking about it. The subject merits a bit more — I won’t say serious, because I take my fiction very seriously — but real-world and scholarly treatment.
Is there any evidence that the change I’m predicting here, the end of discrete religions and the transformation of religious thought into a marketplace of ideas like other areas of discourse and opinion, is happening? Yes, there is.
The Pew Research Center conducted a poll of religious affiliation worldwide and in the United States and found a lot of movement. Some of the interesting findings involve how many Americans change the religion in which they were raised. People who were raised Catholic, for example, drop out of the Church enough that some ten percent of the U.S. population is “former Catholic.” The Church has maintained its numbers and shows a stable percentage of the population as members only because of the disproportionate number of immigrants who are Catholic (due of course to the fact that such a large percentage of immigrants to the U.S. come from Latin America). The Catholic Church in the United States is becoming more Hispanic as time goes by. Other churches have shown similar patterns of change.
The biggest growth category is the “unaffiliated,” those who don’t subscribe to any particular religion. What’s more, this category shows a clear generational shift. The overall unaffiliated roster is 16.1% of the U.S. population, but among those 18-29 it is one in four. Lest we think that this means people are abandoning religion and becoming atheists, though, it should be noted that only 25% of the unaffiliated say that they are atheist or agnostic, representing a total of 4% of the population. The rest are religious believers, but don’t identify with any particular religious tradition.
Also of interest is the non-dogmatic approach of most people even among those who do label themselves as belonging to a particular religion. A majority of believers in every single religion surveyed (except for Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) say that “many religions can lead to eternal life” and that “there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.” The percentages are smaller for Evangelicals and Muslims than for Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and mainline Protestants, as one might expect, but a majority of Evangelicals and Muslims (57% and 56%, respectively) affirm religious pluralism. (The overall percentage among the affiliated was 70. One would, of course, expect this number to approach 100% among the unaffiliated.) This is, of course, not in accord with the official teachings of Evangelical Christianity (although it is with Islam, or may be depending on the interpretation of the word “many”), showing that a lot of people who belong to Evangelical churches have ideas not entirely in agreement with those official teachings.
What is happening here? I believe there are two factors involved. One of them is religious freedom and the fact that the United States has no established religion and the Constitution forbids both this and the infringement of religious liberty. But that factor goes back to 1789, and builds on British concepts of free religion that are even older, so it’s nothing new. What is new is the Internet. Religious believers today are confronted with a vast storm of religious ideas and discourse. If one is curious about the teachings of Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism, information is only a Google search away. It’s much more difficult, if not impossible, to think of other religions in stereotypes; one must be highly motivated to do so (the human mind can believe almost anything in the grip of powerful emotions).
What Makes a Person Religious?
Before going into this, I should clarify that I am using the word “religious” here in a slightly different way than Pew does. I’m not talking about belonging to a religious organization or attending services regularly. I’m talking about beliefs and attitudes affirming a spiritual connection to the cosmos, or to a metaphor or personalization for the cosmos such as God or gods. This encompasses non-traditional as well as traditional religious belief and practice.
With that out of the way, why does a person believe and practice religion? I believe it’s one or both of two things: spiritual experience and religious indoctrination. The first of those must be present to at least a small degree, but in some cases the second may be the more important, and when it comes to belief that one particular religion is superior to others, the second is always more important as a cause.
What happens when the indoctrination becomes less effective, when a person is easily exposed to diverse beliefs and arguments against the teachings of his “home faith”? At the extreme, if the effect of indoctrination is reduced to nothing, only religious experience will motivate the person to spiritual belief and practice. What happens then depends on how strong the impact of spiritual experience is on the person. If it is very strong, as it is for me, then the person will remain (or become, as I did — I was raised in an atheist household) deeply spiritual or religious, but eschew orthodoxy of any kind. Such a person will either belong to a religious organization for social reasons rather than those of doctrinal agreement, or else be one of the unaffiliated religious.
If the effect of religious or spiritual experience is weaker, the person may drop most religious belief and practice, either becoming atheist or agnostic, or acknowledging the possible (or even probable) existence of some vaguely-understood higher power, but without having it be important in their lives.
What Makes a Person Atheist?
Again, I should clarify that by “atheist” in this context, I mean someone who rejects spirituality in his or her own life and does not believe in the existence of any higher power, whether personalized or otherwise. This would exclude the Buddha and myself. He did not, and I do not, believe in the ultimate existence of a personal God, and so by a looser definition either of us could be considered an atheist, but he was deeply spiritual, as am I, so I will not use that label for myself in this context.
Here again, I believe there are two factors involved. One of those is lack of spiritual experience, or very weak and infrequent spiritual experience that is not compelling. The other is a negative reaction to the teachings of one or more religions, particularly the more authoritarian versions. Both of these factors must be present to some degree in order for a person to definitely affirm the non-existence of God or gods and the invalidity of spiritual approaches to life. The first alone is enough for a person to be irreligious in practice and to have spiritual activity be unimportant in his life, but not enough to draw a conclusion of that kind. The aggressive, belligerent so-called “New Atheists” in particular are reacting to the abuses committed by organized religion throughout history and the brow-beating and political activity, offensive to those who value liberty and pluralism, of some of them today.
What happens as the Internet increases the spread and interaction of religious ideas and the power of religious doctrine wanes? Initially, those who have always been angry about that power will probably smell the blood in the water and be encouraged to become more vocal and active, as we have seen, but eventually the waning of religious authority makes such views seem increasingly silly, and a backlash is provoked as part of the ongoing dialogue, and we already see that happening. Eventually, atheism in this sense of dismissing all spirituality will become as passé as religious authority itself.
What Makes a Person a Fanatic?
What about the increase in recent decades in religious extremism, most visibly Christian and Muslim but arising in other religious contexts as well? This is, I believe, a reaction to the new environment in which religious orthodoxy is seriously threatened. It’s instinctive, when the core of one’s identity is under siege, to circle the wagons and lash out at perceived enemies, and a certain percentage (a small one, thankfully) of believers will take physical action along those lines, while a great many more will organize politically and attempt to influence the tide of time through government action. As the power of religious organizations and orthodoxy fades, we should for a while see a great deal of this sort of thing, but like the New Atheism it will eventually fade away. The future is a free marketplace of religious ideas with most or all people being unaffiliated, and there is no way to forestall that future except by undermining civilization itself.
Image credit: justdd / 123RF Stock Photo