Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The United States of Agnostics - The Decline of Religion in America

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A new Gallup survey further confirms what we have already come to know: (i) religiosity in America is in a steep decline and (ii) in most instances states that have populations are deeply religious, the states typically have the poorest education systems, the lowest levels of government support for the poor and needy and lower economic standards of living than less religious states. The latter findings should come as no surprise because the embrace of ignorance does not encourage innovation and an embrace of modernity that goes with economic prosperity.  It is noteworthy that in Virginia now, 25% of the population claim no religion.  An article in The Atlantic looks at the survey findings:

It's pretty easy to guess which states are America's most religious: The most fervent states are almost all southern, with the notable exception of Mormon Utah. But the geography of the "nones"—people who said that religion wasn't an important part of their lives and that they rarely or never attend services—is a little more interesting.

Take a look at the map. Vermont and Mississippi are on opposing ends of the spectrum: 56 percent of those surveyed in the Green Mountain State aren't religious, while only 10 percent of those surveyed from the Magnolia State said the same. But each of those states represent an extreme, outranking the next most- and least-religious state by five percentage points. Compared to the rest of the country, Vermont is more the exception than the rule—the average for the U.S. skews toward the bottom end of the spectrum, at just 29.4 percent.

The country's agnostics (and atheists and spiritualists and disinterested-ists) also form somewhat surprising clusters. For example, the midwest and plains states all follow pretty similar trends, but not the Dakotas: With only 22 percent of their populations identifying as non-religious, they're more similar to far-away states like Kentucky and Texas. Unlike what one might assume, the states of the South aren't all similar: Only 15 percent of those surveyed from Louisiana claimed no faith, while 25 percent of those from Virginia did the same, perhaps because of cultural differences in the northern part of the state. If nothing else, this map offers evidence that Florida is its own geographic region, or maybe just an outpost of New Jersey: With 29 percent of respondents identifying as non-religious, the Sunshine State resembles its far-north neighbors more than any other state in Dixieland.
What is driving the growing departure from past religious belief and what the far right likes to describe as American exceptionalism?   Another piece in The Atlantic blames the conservatives.  Here are some article highlights:

Ironically, the people most responsible for eroding American exceptionalism are the very conservatives who most fear its demise.
To understand what's threatening American exceptionalism, one must first understand what its contemporary champions mean by the term.

As America and Europe have changed over time, so have the attributes that exceptionalists claim distinguish us from them. But for the contemporary right, there are basically three: our belief in organized religion; our belief that America has a special mission to spread freedom in the world; and our belief that we are a classless society where, through limited government and free enterprise, anyone can get ahead. Unfortunately for conservatives, each of these beliefs is declining fast.

Today's conservatives often cast themselves as defenders of this religious exceptionalism against Obama's allegedly secularizing impulses.  . . . . The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it's one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that "religious faith and values are very important to America's success." And young Americans don't merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. "Americans," Pew notes, "do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle"—which means it's unlikely that America's decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as Millennials age.

Even more interesting is the reason for this change. Many of the Americans who today eschew religious affiliation are neither atheists nor agnostics. Most pray. In other words, Americans aren't rejecting religion, or even Christianity. They are rejecting churches.

But it's not just changes in family and work patterns that drive the growth of religious nonaffiliation. It's politics. In the mid-20th century, liberals were almost as likely to attend church as conservatives. But starting in the 1970s, when the Religious Right began agitating against abortion, feminism, and gay rights, liberals began to identify organized Christianity with conservative politics. In recent years, the Religious Right's opposition to gay marriage has proved particularly alienating to Millennials. "The actions of the Religious Right," argue sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, "prompted political moderates and liberals to quit saying they had a religious preference." 

What is growing in contemporary America, in other words, is something long associated with Europe: anticlericalism. 

[T]oday, even without an established church, the Religious Right plays such a prominent and partisan role in American politics that it has spurred the kind of antireligious backlash long associated with the old world.  

The people most responsible for America's declining religious exceptionalism are the conservatives who have made organized Christianity and right-wing politics inseparable in the minds of so many of America's young. 

To some, the rise in religious nonaffiliation is a frightening departure from American tradition. It may turn out, however, to be just the challenge American Christianity needs. 

Historically, American religion has benefited greatly from its independence from the state. In recent decades, however, that independence has been compromised. The Religious Right has become a wing of the Republican Party, led by power brokers who speak biblically but act politically. In response, many young Americans have begun voting against the GOP on Sundays by declining to attend church.
There are many interesting aspects to the column that ought to be read in full.  The take away irony, however, is that it is religious conservatives who are most responsible for the rejection of institutional religion in America.  They are the ones killing the Christian brand, not liberals.  I for one hope that these conservative Christians do not get this message and will help fuel the continued decline of religion in this country.


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