Tag Archives: Christianity declining

The Retreat of the Puritans

Last week, Irish voters overwhelmingly voted to recognize same-sex marriage. Leave aside, for now, the question whether fundamental rights should ever be subject to popular vote, and consider that Ireland has long been considered a very religious country.

Whatever it may mean to be “very religious” today, for growing numbers of people, it’s clear it doesn’t mean obediently following the doctrinal pronouncements of the relevant clerics. Increasingly, the ways in which people connect with their religious traditions have changed.

Earlier this week, my friend Art Farnsley had an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post, addressing this decline of religious authority. It is well worth reading in its entirety. Art notes the recent, widely-discussed Pew poll showing a decline in the number of Americans identifying as Christian, and suggests that numbers don’t adequately tell the story:

.. behind the story of Christian decline and the rise of “nones” is a long-standing debate about what religion theorists call “secularization,” the broad process by which religion gradually loses its social influence….

By the last two decades of the 20th century, secularization theories were in retreat for a number of good reasons. Most people did not stop being religious in the sense that they still had beliefs, intuitions, feelings and practices they defined as sacred. Modernity had not pushed spirituality out of their lives in America, and maybe not even in Britain or the Netherlands.

As Art notes, whether secularization has grown depends upon how you define the term.

Sociologist Mark Chaves redefined secularization as declining religious authority back in 1994. He suggested we stop worrying about whether individuals thought of themselves as religious and focus instead on religion’s social influence.

The evidence for this kind of secularization, the decline of religious authority, is everywhere. It is quaint to think of a time stores did not open and liquor was not sold on the Sabbath. But that is a small, symbolic change compared with the massive growth in individual choice at the expense of tradition, especially religious tradition.

Understood in this way, secularization is an inevitable consequence of modernity. We no longer see diseases like smallpox as indicators of God’s judgment; we call a doctor. We no longer ask the minister or rabbi to mediate our disputes; we call a lawyer.  For most inhabitants of modern, Western countries, religion is an incubator of values, not the source of binding law. So we have cultural Catholics, social Protestants, ethnic Jews…individuals still attached to their respective traditions who nevertheless feel free to pick and choose aspects of the relevant doctrines.

Change in the role of any social institution is never linear, of course, so we still have a number of the folks I called Puritans in God and Country- the “old time religion” fundamentalists who continue to wage war against religious diversity, women’s rights, same-sex marriage and any effort to grant LGBT citizens equal civil rights.

As Art concluded, they aren’t likely to win that war.

“In the struggle for authority with modern individualism, American religion is slowly losing.” That would be my headline for the recent Pew report. “Christians are declining in America” is just the tip of the iceberg.