This post first appeared as the weekly column, “Denim Spirit” in The Finger Lakes Times (NY): http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-inside-shrinking-of-religion/article_4703fd98-147c-11e7-982f-2fd4b196d862.html
Recently I observed the thirty-sixth anniversary of my ordination as a priest in The Episcopal Church. Three dozen.
During those three and half decades the membership in my denomination has declined by 30%, and consequently there are 6% fewer congregations. Surprisingly however, over the same period, the number of clergy has increased by 22%. Hmmm, more clergy, less members; there is a message there.
But this decline is not only my denomination. Nationally, since 1987, the percentage of people “unaffiliated” with any religion has doubled – and just in the past seven years, religious affiliation has dropped another 7% across the board (Pew Research Center Landscape Study 2014). Nationally, those who attend a religious service once a week is down to 25% (“Decline in American Religion?” by Mark Chaves, Duke University, ARDA).
The decline in the last fifteen years is two times as great as the decline from the 1960’s to the 1970’s, so whatever is happening out there, like climate change, it is happening at an increasing velocity. As Chavez reports, prior to 1900, 70% of Americans were raised in a household with a religiously active father. After 1970 that number shrank to 45%.
Perhaps most unnerving to those who care about the rapidly shriveling institutions of religion, even 49% of those affiliated with a religion express mixed feelings about whether religious institutions have a positive or negative influence on society (Pew). Half the people in those institutions can’t even be unequivocal about the positive influence of them!
By contrast, six in ten adults “regularly feel a deep sense of ‘spiritual peace and well-being,’” while 46% of all Americans say they “experience a deep sense of wonder about the universe’ at least once a week.” Both of those indices are up significantly just in the past ten years, even as religious affiliation declines. Likewise, while 92% of Baby-boomers and older believe in God, so do 80% of those born after 1980. “NONES,” or the unaffiliated known as “None Of The Above,” continue to express receptivity, desire, and curiosity about the spiritual nature of life.
Perhaps the most dramatic of all, in terms of changing religious views, comes directly from those still affiliated with a religion. 75% of Americans say they agree that more than one religion offers a pathway to God (Pew), thus proving theological pluralism has taken hold in a fundamental way.
What is the point?
Just this: while secularization of the culture is eroding our religious institutions, it is not having a dramatic effect on the human desire to know and be known by a power greater than the self.
Think of it as akin to alternative medicine and the healing arts. In the past twenty-five years these new, less institutional forms of healing, have provided a supplement, or even separate option, to traditional medical treatment. Therapeutic massage, yoga, Tai Chi, and dietary and herbal therapy have become mainstream forms of health care. All of them were considered exotic and even strange before 1990. The medical industry will hardly disappear, but it is no longer seen as the only – or for some, even the primary – form of health care.
I like to imagine the next thirty-six years, influenced by an even more rampant secularization, will agitate and reform religious institutions even more radically. Perhaps they will stop acting like rigid establishments dedicated to preservation, and instead, return to their primal form as spiritual movements located in community.