Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Shedding religious identity

An American Religious Self-Identification Survey reported in The Christian Science Monitor concludes that the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians has declined to 76%, a drop of 10% since 1990. The number of Americans declaring themselves to identify with no religion has increased to 15%, a rise of 10% since 1990.

Interestingly, only 10% of those who identified with no religion declare themselves to be atheists or agnostics. This could suggest that Americans are not abandoning some of the core beliefs of religion as much as they are abandoning identification with a particular set of dogmas and practices. Perhaps what these people are abandoning is labels, and the sorts of things that labels often lead to, such as pride on the individual level and fund-raising campaigns on the institutional level.

I cannot help seeing the rise of the “No Religion” response as a sign of health and vitality in American culture. Institutional affiliation can come at a high price to those who indulge in it. A sense of communal belonging can rarely be acquired without at least a slight reduction in the willingness to speak critically and to act authentically. Speaking one's deepest and most sincere convictions is, in all but the rarest of communities, the shortest route to the margins of acceptability.

The only kind of community I have ever been attracted to is a community of people who are wary of organized and institutionalized communities. Over the years, I have found myself in several such communities. My experience has been that when such anti-community communities form by some freakish accident, one of two things happen. They either fall apart quickly, or they begin taking themselves seriously as communities and take on organized institutional structures—such things as by-laws, compliance with governmental regulations concerning non-profit organizations, a hankering for institutional recognition within the broader public, and perhaps a physical presence, such as a building or rented space with a sign outside telling the world that the community has a name and therefore exists. When the development of institutional structures happens, the people who are most allergic to organizations quietly (or sometimes noisily) leave. Hard feelings make the rounds of both the stay-ins and the drop-outs. It's often a sad situation.

Paradoxically, despite a fairly robust allergy to organized religion, I have become a member of several of them. Not only that, but I have gone pretty far out of my way to take the various steps that membership requires. Perhaps I enjoy the self-discipline involved in the pursuit of membership. The membership itself, once acquired, usually ends up feeling like an ill-fitting uniform. Shortly after becoming a member of a religious organization, I tend to become one of those who responds No Religion when asked about my religious self-identity.

Perhaps people with my temperament should pursue a catch-and-release approach to religion, like some of my friends who love the process of catching trout but quickly return their prey to the stream before anyone has to do any killing, cleaning, frying or eating. Whatever the case may be, I couldn't help feeling a surge of solidarity and kinship with the 15% of Americans who identify themselves as having no religion. I only pray that we can remain disorganized.


Jayarava said...

Many fundamentalist Christians dis-identify with mainstream Christianity (which is the work of the Devil) but would not see themselves as having no religion as they have the only true religion. Or so my Aunt tells me.

I seem to recall a similar trend occurring in New Zealand stats. No religion being the fastest growing category.

I see the lack of religion as a sign of the growing alienation and isolation of people who can no longer find positive social groups to belong to, and are floundering - massively increasing rates of mental illness being one give away.

Yes religion can put limits on free thinking and individuality, but it need not always be a bad thing. I recall that the APA published an issue on happiness in 1999 or 2000 - which may be down to the influence of Martin Seligman. Several articles concluded that the Amish are the happiest people in the US. They certainly have the lowest rates of mental illness. One article concluded that lack of boundaries and too much choice makes us miserable.

We are social animals. Without a group most of us don't do very well. We go a bit mad. I think Durkheim identified social isolation as a key factor in suicide - rates of which are also rising.

I suppose we can all still laugh at Groucho saying he wouldn't be a member of a club that would have him as a member, but most people need some kind of group.

Perhaps it's because I don't see the American (i.e. US) culture as being health or vital generally. I see it as sick, failing, and senile.