Wednesday, May 13, 2015

“America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” “The Iron Law of Fashion,” and History

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of
U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing,
according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center.
Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape,
affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups.
While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults,
it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites,
blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults
with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.
‑ From “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 12 May 2015,
Followup to Pew Research Center’s Study of 2007.

      The Pew Center’s exhaustive study of “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” for 2014 has shown “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population” since the Pew study of 2007, while “Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.” And that unaffiliated group includes increasing percentages of self-identified atheists (+1.5), agnostics (+1.6), and “Nothing in particular” (+3.7)

      That last group is significant. Atheists care enough about the gods to deny them, and the cliché observation is correct that militant atheists care a great deal; and in many places in America even declaring oneself agnostic is taking a position. As Eric Hoffer wrote, “The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not,” and “Nothing in particular” may be the closest we have to such gentle cynics.

      Anyway, as I write the Pew study has been making news, and the general trends are significant. I’ll throw in here, though with those arguing that the results are not definitively significant since the studies give only two “snapshots” of American religiosity and the trend lines between two points. The whole graph is dynamic, ongoing, and, tracked for more than a few years, a whole hell of a lot more complicated.

      First, there is what has been called “the iron law of fashion change,” which I reduce to “the iron law of fashion” and relate to Mark Twain’s suggestion in “Corn-Pone Opinions,” “that a coldly-thought-out and independent verdict upon a fashion in clothes, or manners, or literature, or politics, or religion, or any other matter that is projected into the field of our notice and interest, is a most rare thing — if it has indeed ever existed” (published posthumously, 1923). Allow here for satiric exaggeration and oversimplification, and insist strongly that fashions in politics and religion are of greater consequence than whether beards are “in” or “out” for men or women wear skirts or jeans. Still, even as there are fashions in appearance and manners and literature, even so there are fashions in politics and in religion. If it’s a human behavior, allow for fashion, always.

      Fashion viewed more earnestly, broadly, and over long periods gets us to historical trends and ethnic and cultural variation.

      I'll emphasize historical trends and note that over the long haul human cultures have tended to become more secular, at least insofar as increasing percentages of people don’t use theology to account for storms or volcanic eruptions or eclipses, plagues, or invasions. Still, like fashions, “These things go in cycles.”
Knocking around Athens some 400 years BCE, one would probably hear underemployed old men complaining about increasing irreligion among pampered young men, and the execution of Socrates was a kind of sacrifice to assuage the unease of the City (although I have some sympathy with occasionally banishing particularly obstreperous philosophers, as a warning to the rest). The concern of such religious conservatives was, to put it mildly, misplaced. The next few centuries saw the spread of mystery cults all through the Greek world and beyond, and in the time of Rome interest in even such exotic cults as that of the Jews — and then the rise of Christianity and then Islam.

      And eventually both Church and Mosque ceased being mass movements of the fanatical faithful and settled down to ritual and institutions in the Medieval Church and courts and schools in the golden age of Islam.

      Except for the occasional (periodic?) outbursts of religious fervor in Crusades and answering Jihad, obsession with death in time of plague and hysteria over heresy and, later, the witch threat.

      And then there was a relatively secular Renaissance in Italy ca. 1300, expanding out to most of the rest of darkest Europe by 1500. Walking around Florence much of that time or Rome during the reigns of the more corrupt Popes, one might talk of a growing secularization. Or you might talk that way unless you ran into the followers of Girolamo Savonarola crying out for purifying Florence of the 1490s — and doing some direction-action purifying on their own. Or unless you were observing carefully in the German mini-states in the 1510s and noted that a rising nationalism (or at least dislike for Italians and other foreigners) had religious significance, and that significance wasn’t a desire for secularism.

      In the West, the sporadically and somewhat secular Renaissance was followed by Reformation and then reformations of the reformation: and Reformation was followed by the small religious wars of the 16th and then near-genocidal wars of 17th centuries of the emphatically Christian era. (The Wars of Religion had other causes, but religion was a biggie.)

      And then came the 18th-century Enlightenment and increasing secularism followed by Revival and 19th-century middle-class religiosity — and general indifference in the upper and lower classes — and on into the 20th century with our ups and down of Fundamentalism (a modern reaction against Modernism), evangelical passion, spiritual experimentation … and increasing numbers of loud atheists and louder fans of football or music or American Exceptionalism or other alternatives to religious faith.
And there were similar patterns of relatively secularity and Revival in Judaism, Islam, and other faiths.

      Most people most of the time want at least a little significant meaning to our lives, and this requires some varierty of faith and/or wilful blindness to the actual triviality of the human species — to say nothing of human individuals — in the larger scheme of things. If you’re doing okay, you can successfully slide on through believing in yourself and your luck and your immediate social world and, beyond that — “Nothing in particular.” Or it may be convenient to join a church or get involved with some other religious community.


      Other people, in other times: in bad times, other situations, other cultures — then you might try the religion thing or return to your ancestral faith.

      And the same will be true for billions of others; and so the trivial wheels of fashion will spin on, and the Great Wheel of historical cycles will grind along, with luck not going into high gear — Crusades or 17th-century style — and, with luck, not grinding down cities and peoples in the name of the gods or God or something else greater than ourselves.

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