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March 26, 2013

Gerson: America's Religiosity is Declining

Michael Gerson:

The nation’s religious composition — as revealed in a recent presentation by Luis Lugo of the Pew Research Center — is changing. In 2012, America ceased to be a majority Protestant country — the result, mainly, of a decline in the numbers of mainline Protestants (though there have been smaller losses among white evangelicals as well). Catholicism is holding its own with a stable 22 percent of the public, but its ethnic composition has shifted dramatically — about half of all Catholics younger than 40 are Latino.

One group, however, has swelled: those with no religious affiliation, also known as “nones” (as in “none of the above”). In the 1950s, this was about 2 percent of the population. In the 1970s, it was about 7 percent. Today, it is close to 20 percent. These gains can be found in all regions of the country, including the South. The trend is particularly pronounced among whites, among the young and among men.

I've been thinking for some time that men are the first abandoners of tradition and women tend to be the last preservers. I know that I tend to casually forget about social obligations and most women I know don't (or at least remember a lot more).

Anyway, there's some texture to that 20% of of the "nones:"

Not all the nones, it is worth pointing out, are secular. Only about 30 percent of this group — 6 percent of the public — are atheists or agnostics. The rest of the nones describe themselves as indifferent to religion or as “nothing in particular.” Sixty-four percent of the nones, however, say they believe in God or a universal spirit with “absolute certainty.” Even 9 percent of atheists and agnostics — defying both dogma and the dictionary— report themselves absolutely convinced of God’s existence.

What? Okay whatever Einsteins.

There's more to the article, including the conversion of the religious to the non-religious and of course the conversion of the non-religious to the religions -- 40% of those raised without religious affiliation actually do join a religion later in life (though I would imagine a lot of this is due to marriage-- it's a relatively simply thing for non-affiliated to just join the spouse's religion).

Gerson offers a couple of possibilities why impiety should be a growing phenomenon, including the always-popular Because, the Religious Right.

Whatever the reason, the result will probably not be good. An old Charles Murray piece explored the growing differences between the Two Americas, one affluent and stable, the other poor and frequently in various states of instability such as family break-ups and drug abuse. His exemplars for the two Americas Belmont (the more prosperous and stable town) and Fishdown (the more downscale one).

Among various other differences is the difference between Belmont's and Fishtown's relative level of religiosity:

Religiosity: Whatever your personal religious views, you need to realize that about half of American philanthropy, volunteering and associational memberships is directly church-related, and that religious Americans also account for much more nonreligious social capital than their secular neighbors. In that context, it is worrisome for the culture that the U.S. as a whole has become markedly more secular since 1960, and especially worrisome that Fishtown has become much more secular than Belmont. It runs against the prevailing narrative of secular elites versus a working class still clinging to religion, but the evidence from the General Social Survey, the most widely used database on American attitudes and values, does not leave much room for argument.

For example, suppose we define "de facto secular" as someone who either professes no religion at all or who attends a worship service no more than once a year. For the early GSS surveys conducted from 1972 to 1976, 29% of Belmont and 38% of Fishtown fell into that category. Over the next three decades, secularization did indeed grow in Belmont, from 29% in the 1970s to 40% in the GSS surveys taken from 2006 to 2010. But it grew even more in Fishtown, from 38% to 59%.

I spoke with an atheist one time who identified himself as strongly in favor of Christianity in society. His reasons weren't metaphysical, but practical: Christianity (or I suppose any number of other well-behaving, good-results-promoting religions) tends to produce good social results in society. Whether Christianity is the truth was a separate question (which he answered in the negative); but he couldn't help observing that the combination of capitalism, democracy, stable British-derived law and Christian moral philosophy (which tended to support the other three) seemed to work well, and countries without any of these seemed to be on the whole pretty crappy.

One question I would ask about that, though: While I accept that these things do go together, do we know it's A that tends to promote B, rather than B promoting A? During the campaign Romney spoke a couple of times about wanting to promote good moral values, because those would in turn promote industriousness and a good work ethic and ultimately prosperity. I wondered, though, whether it wasn't the other way 'round: did industriousness, a good work ethic, and ultimately success produce in turn good moral values? (As in many things, it might be a mutually-reinforcing virtuous cycle, of course.)

Adam Carolla surprised me with a simple observation one time. He thought that a kid sentenced to life in prison for murdering someone in stone cold blood should have his sentence reduced so he could be out of jail by age 30 (or so). That surprised me; Carolla is a law and order guy. I didn't/don't agree with him on that, necessarily. But that's unimportant. The observation is what mattered. He suggested the kid probably just killed someone for a trivial amount of money -- say, $300 -- because he valued his own life about that cheaply. His life was cheap -- about $300's worth of life, all told -- and therefore every human life he saw walking down the street he also saw as being worth about $300. If you can get $300 out of it, kill that person. That's what people are worth.

I know this is obvious. "In the mean streets where life is cheap..." is such a cliche. Still, I hadn't considered it a while. It was just a cliche to me, and so it was meaningless.

While, again, I don't agree with him that this should be a mitigating factor in criminal punishment, it strikes me as most likely true. (Not every true thing should be a factor in criminal punishment.) But it does seem that people who value their own lives as worthy will tend, on average, to view other people's lives as worthy too. And people who are cynical about the value of their own life will be even more cynical about the value of the lives of others.

And cynical about things in general.

People living rather bad lives tend to be cynical about things. They feel that the "Rules don't work" so they abandon the rules. (I'm not so sure I'd agree with them that the "Rules don't work;" I suspect they haven't been taught the actual rules or aren't applying them properly or consistently.)

But my point is, maybe Fishtown isn't getting poorer because it's getting less religious. Maybe it's partly also that as it gets poorer, it gets more cynical about things, more despairing of its place in the world, and then, because of that, it gets cynical about religion.

I don't know, actually. Just some thoughts that occurred to me.

Any way you slice it, though, I don't think I agree with the atheists that we're entering a New Age of Beauty and Reason because we're abandoning religion. I fear it's might be more the direct opposite.

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posted by Ace at 11:46 AM

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