Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's the end of the (religious) world as we know it...

...and I feel fine. Apparently a BBC article was published on a report that predicts religion will "go extinct" in several countries. According to the census data, too many people in those places are losing their religion.

So what did the report say and what, if anything, is it telling us?

In a nutshell, they assumed that social status and utility are the main determinants in whether someone stays in or leaves a group, decided how to define values for these concepts for different nations (that is what people in these places would get out of being part of a religious community), and used it to predict future trends with a statistical model based on these assumptions. Richard Wiener, University of Arizona, was quoted regarding the study: "Obviously much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out."

Maybe. Maybe not.  One of things that makes social science so challenging is that the phenomena under study, people, are more complicated and harder to predict than the particles, atoms and molecules of the physical sciences.

I would not disagree that formal religion is on the decline in many places, and I would give three basic reasons which resonate with the study and its ideas about why people join or leave social groups. First, it has to do with what many people believe religion is: that it is a collections of fairy tails, that it is a failed form of a primitive science, that it is a form of social control. These stereotypes derive from religious institutions themselves and their mismanagement.

Second, it  has to do with what many people believe religions does. On the one hand cynics believe religions simply oppress and anesthetize populations to support the ruling ideology. Given the track record of many religious institutions, this is not an unfair criticism. Yet on the other hand many people do see the job of religion as to help heal wounded people, to inspire healthy people, to serve as a prophetic witness against hubris and to resist injustice, inequality and oppression. That is also problematic because many who have that view also see religion (at least what they see in the news and from their local religious blowhards) as having failed to live up to this mission.

Third, it has to do with how many self-identified religious people behave. The most visible ones are often presenting a human face of religion which is ignorant, under-educated, crude in thought, fearful, angry, bigoted and hypocritical. For every Archbishop Oscar Romero or His Holiness the 14th Dalia Lama there seem to be two dozen Pat Robertsons or Osama bin Ladens. With that kind of public image, even if it is unrealistic and distorted, identifying with religion becomes less palatable. But does that mean religion is "doomed"?

Not if we look at the huge trend for people in countries with declining formal religious affiliation to identify in some form or another as "spiritual but not religious". Doug Blanchard of Counterlight's Peculiars makes the point well:
I think the wisest and most prophetic thinker on the role of religion in the modern and post-modern world was that very secular thinker Hannah Arendt, who pointed out that while the traditional language and institutions of religion may well perish in the encounter with modern history, the religious impulse will probably survive, finding new languages to articulate that experience, and new forms of institutional expression. We may be witnessing that process now.
 I've said as much before, as have countless others.  Consider this reflection on the religious impulse versus the religious institution from the National Catholic Reporter website (it's from the comments section of the piece):
People tend to think that "religion" is defined by the structures with which we are currently familiar. For many people that is ALL that religion is. As those structures fade, weaken, become irrelevant and/or boring and generally no longer appeal, then they (“religion”) will disappear.

“Habits of The Heart, by Robert Bellah et al., spoke convincingly of the tendency of Americans to seek a religion that will satisfy them, confirm their expectations, and make them feel good about themselves - in other words, a religion that will leave them where they are, one completely incapable of transforming them. “ (John Garvey, Of Several Minds” The Protestant Moment? Commonweal, 10/8/93)

However, what is happening is not new and was predicted by the humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, in his 1964 book, Religions, Value and Peak Experiences:

“Most people lose or forget the subjectively religious experience, and redefined Religion as a set of habits, behaviors, dogmas, forms, which at the extreme becomes entirely legalistic and bureaucratic, conventional, empty, and in the truest meaning of the word, anti religious The mystic experience, the illumination, the great awakening, along with the charismatic seer who started the whole thing are forgotten, lost or transformed into their opposites. Organized Religion, the churches, finally may become the major enemy of the religious experience and the religious experiencer.”
 For those who take religion seriously, belief is not a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status. The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of meaningful and, may I say it – true religion. Until and unless people grasp the need for such a discipline, they will misunderstand the nature of religion to console, and equally importantly, to challenge and to confront.
I think this explains the twin phenomena of the rise of certain fundamentalist types of churches like the Adventists as well as the rise of the amorphous movement that has been dubbed the emergent/emerging church and the popularity of Eastern religions in the Western world. Both represent a desire to reach back into religious tradition to find a way to express and cultivate the religious impulse in a way that the typical far right evangelicals and mainstream denominations haven't been able to tap into effectively. The former are very dynamic and offer certitude, much like similar evangelical fundamentalists. The latter is also dynamic but open to mystery and much more likely to be respectful of or willing to learn from other faiths. This also helps explain the interest in monasticism among the emerging church, as that represents contemplation, mysticism, the better virtues of religious life, a solid ethical foundation and a hands-on approach.

It has been suggested that Christianity sorts itself out every 500 years, like a spring cleaning and yard sale, to reappraise and reformulate itself in the balance between received wisdom and ongoing revelation. OK, well, help me sort through some of these boxes...

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