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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

Scholars of religion and scholars of American society (including me) have conventionally described the United States as religiously “exceptional” compared to other affluent Christian nations. The claim has at least two features: First, since at least the mid-nineteenth century, Americans have been notably more religious than other westerners. Second, the U.S. has not experienced the decrease in individual piety (“secularization” in this discussion) that seems to have accompanied “modernization” in much of the affluent West. Indeed, observers have often been struck that, paradoxically, the U.S. has been at the same time the most “modern” society in the West and the most religious.god-we-trust

This description has, of course, been repeatedly challenged. Two new articles strongly argue that, at minimum, the U.S. has been experiencing “secularization” in the last several decades, so that, if American faith ever was immune to the supposedly secularizing forces of modern life, it is no longer.

Maybe. Maybe not.

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Many of America’s cultural battles in recent decades seem to be face-offs between science and faith: over the teaching of evolution, the reality of climate change, the value of stem cell research, the personhood status of an embryo, and the so on. Many on the liberal side of these issues see the controversies as part of a confrontation between ignorance and knowledge. For the more philosophically inclined, it is about a centuries-old tension between Faith and the Enlightenment’s assertion of reasoned observation. (Scientific American writer Michael Shermer’s “Skeptic” column is largely devoted to this theme.) Recent research suggests, however, a more complex structure to these debates and Americans’ views: Many of those on the religious side are far from scientific naifs; some are scientifically quite knowledgeable. It’s when science directly touches faith that the conflict flares up.

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Declaring You’re a “None”

In 2002, Mike Hout and I identified a new trend in Americans’ relationship with religion. Around 1990, the percentage of respondents to the General Social Survey (GSS) who, when asked their “religious preference,” picked the “no religion” option starting rising, doubling from about 7 percent, where it had been for many years, to 14 percent by 2000.

That finding and our efforts to explain it stirred interest among scholars and leaders of American religion. A few weeks ago, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life convened a briefing session for journalists on what we know about these “nones” now, a decade after that report. Pew brought together researchers to discuss what the trends look like in three different national surveys – the GSS, the Gallup Poll, and the Pew survey itself.

Although the methodologies of the three survey organizations differ (the GSS is the only one using in-home interviews) and the questions about religion that they use vary, there was nonetheless strong agreement on key points: By 2012, the percentage claiming no religion was between 18 and 20; the substantial increase in “nones” does not necessarily represent a decrease in Americans’ religiosity; and the trend in “nones” seems to be really about the act of declaring no religious preference.

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Still Under God

James Bryce, who would later be the British ambassador to the United States, wrote a major work on American society in the 1880s. The American Commonwealth was a re-do, about 50 years later, of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. One of Bryce’s acute observations was about Americans’ religiosity: “Christianity influences conduct . . . probably more than it does in any other modern country, and far more than it did in the so-called ages of faith.” The common expectation has been that modern times have been eroding Americans’ faith ever since, but as best as historians of religion can estimate, Americans today are roughly as religious as they were in Bryce’s generation. (See this earlier post.)

How well does Bryce’s impression that faith in the U.S. is greater than in other modern nations hold up about 120 years later? The latest data are in and Bryce is confirmed. Americans of the 21st century remain strikingly more religious than people in other nations, especially western ones. It is part of what makes America “exceptional.”

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Make-Your-Own Religion

In their best-selling 1980s book on the tensions between community and individualism in America, Habits of the Heart, my Berkeley colleagues Robert Bellah and Ann Swidler, along with three other coauthors, described the version of religion that a woman whom they called Sheila had described to them. She believed in a faith of loving and being gentle with oneself; she labeled this theology “Sheilism” – “just my own little voice.” The authors of Habits saw her declaration as an expression of a growing tendency in America toward isolation and self-absorption raised here to an ethical principle.  (The term “Sheilaism” is now so well-known it has its own Wikipedia entry.)

(spiritualpracticefoundation.org)

There were and are other signs of a make-your-own religious boom. Outside of the standard religious structures, we see the excavation of old, pagan traditions like Wicca and the construction of hybrid, New Age faiths and Eastern blends with practices such as yoga and Kabalistc mysticism. Inside standard religious structures, variants such as independent churches, new liturgies and rituals, and even re-defined theologies have emerged. Some religious leaders describe all this as “cafeteria-style” faith: take what you like and disregard the rest. (And there is a Wikipedia entry for “Cafeteria Christianity,” too.)

Such religious inventions may well have burgeoned in recent decades, especially since the 1960s. Getting good numbers to test that assumption would be difficult, especially when so many “new religious movements” are informal and some even hostile to becoming formal institutions. But one thing is clear: This is not new.

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Faith Endures

In 1907, a delegation of ministers from the New York City Federation of Churches visited President Theodore Roosevelt to ask his assistance in halting an alarming decline in the churches’ “hold on the people.” Roosevelt promised “to aid the cause in every way possible.” Ministers in the early 20th century frequently raised such alarms. They blamed scientists who taught evolution, congregants who spent Sunday mornings in their tin lizzies, and popular culture. “The modern novel . . . is responsible for our empty pews. . . . [It] has taken the place of the pulpit,” complained one priest – and that was before movies, radio, television, and the internet.

1943 (LC-USW3-024720-D)

Less than 50 years later, the popular reaction was quite different. The Methodist Council of Bishops proclaimed in 1954: “Our people are attending public worship in larger numbers than we have ever known . . . . A new spirit has fallen upon our people.” Commentators remarked on the boom in church building, the flocking of families to churches, the fascination with religion.

If we went by the common wisdom, the story should have been told in reverse, as a decline in religiosity from the 1900s to the 1950s, rather than an increase.  What happened then? What is happening now?
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[A version of this post appears at The Immanent Frame]

The furious debate in some quarters over whether America was born a “Christian nation” is ironic. The historical record shows that America was not born Christian, but grew to be very Christian centuries later.

Some Religious Right activists believe that were it to be accepted as a fact that pre-1800 Americans were deeply Christian, a new light would be cast on current debates about where (if anywhere) to draw a line between Church and State today. In the sense of the Supreme Court’s search for “originalist” interpretations of the Constitution, Christian dogma would be an originalist justification for, say, reintroducing prayer into schools. But the story of Early American religion is, in fact, a quite different one.
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