Because religion is an important part of our society, sociologists and other observers have examined how religious thought and practice have changed in the last few decades. Three trends have been studied in particular: (a) secularization and the rise of the ‘nones’; (b) the rise of religious conservatism; and (c) civil religion. We conclude with some thoughts about the future of religion.
Secularization and the Rise of the ‘Nones’
refers to the weakening importance of religion in a society due to its watered-down nature. Because of the variety of forms religion takes in our society, it ironically plays less of a role in people’s lives, as they are less guided in their daily behavior by religious beliefs. The influence of religious organizations in society has also declined, and some individual houses of worship give more emphasis to worldly concerns such as support to the homeless or soup kitchens than to spiritual issues. There is no doubt that religion is less important in modern society than it was before the rise of science in the 17th and 18th centuries. Indeed, while a Pew survey found that people still found religion important in their lives, fewer see it as very important today (41%) compared to 2007 (56%), and a surprising 33% do not see it as important at all (2021). In another survey, 78% felt that religion was losing its influence on American life, only 46% said religion can answer today’s problems, and 39% felt religion was old fashioned or out of date (Brennan, 2021).
One of the earliest functions of religion was to explain life’s mysteries. As scientific knowledge progressed, questions once answered by religion, such as the origins of humans, were challenged by new scientific explanations. ConexaoCabeca – Pixabay
While it was discussed earlier that the U.S., when compared to other countries similar in political and economic status, is more religious, in recent years the U.S. has witnessed a quick increase in the number of people who claim no religious affiliation (sometimes referred to as the “nones”). Survey data demonstrates this growing trend. The number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S. increased from 16% of the population in 2007, to 23% in 2014, to 33% in 2021 (Smith, 2021). Correlating factors are age, sex, and education, with younger adults, men and those with a college or graduate degree being more likely to have no religious affiliation (Lipka, 2015). People with no religious affiliation cite their questioning of religious teachings, opposition to social and political issues promoted by religions, dislike of religious organization and disbelief in God as the primary reasons for their lack of religious affiliation (Alper, 2018).
Think Like a Sociologist
Though they might appear to be reactions to growing secularism, secular religions such as the Unitarian Universalists and Quakers precede this development. Seen as the most liberal of faiths, these churches welcome everyone from Christians, to Buddhists, to agnostics and atheists. They borrow from many faiths but do not have a doctrine of their own, eschew the spiritual, and have no official rituals.
Recalling the elements that define a religion, including a community of like-minded people with a set of beliefs and practices regarding sacred things, should they be considered religions?
Since a large number of participants are agnostic or atheists, why do you think they attend meetings or services?
How does this connect to an earlier question about mining religious practices for their benefits?
The Rise of Religious Conservatism
Evidence shows that while secularization has been growing for decades in the U.S., religion still remains a potent force in American society as a whole and for the individual lives of Americans (Finke & Scheitle, 2005). One of the key trends among those who are religiously affiliated is the growth of religious conservatism. in the U.S. context is the belief that the Bible is the actual word of God and is characterized by a strong support of socially conservative ideals and policies. While religious conservatives can be found in all religious groups, two stand out as having an extremely high degree of conservative adherents — evangelical Protestants and Mormons, 55% and 61% of whom claim a conservative political ideology, respectively (Pew, 2018).
Image of a fundamentalist protesting at a parade in New Orleans. Religious fundamentalists tend to have conservative views about political, social and moral issues. Infrogmation of New Orleans – CC BY 2.5 – Wikimedia Commons
This shift toward religious conservatism has resulted, in part, due to a decline in membership in mainstream Protestant denominations since the 1960s, and an increase in membership in conservative Protestant denominations, and in part from fears that the United States is becoming too secularized. Many religious conservatives believe that a return to the teachings of the Bible and religious spirituality is necessary to combat the corrupting influences of modern life (Almond, Appleby, & Sivan, 2003).
Roughly 27% of Americans state a religious preference for a conservative denomination (Pew, 2018). They tend to hold politically conservative views on many issues, including abortion and the punishment of criminals, and are more likely than people with other religious beliefs to believe in such things as the corporal punishment of children (Burdette, Ellison, & Hill, 2005). They are also more likely to believe in traditional roles for women.
Closely related to the rise of religious conservatism has been the increasing influence of what has been termed the “new religious right” in American politics (Martin, 2005; Capps, 1990; Moen, 1992). Since the 1980s, the religious right has been a potent force in the political scene at both the national and local levels, with groups like the Moral Majority, Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition effective in raising money, using the media, and lobbying elected officials. As its name implies, the religious right tries to advance a conservative political agenda consistent with conservative religious ideology. Among other issues, it opposes legal abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and violence and sex in the media, and it also advocates an increased religious presence in public schools.
Applying the Theoretical Perspectives
While numerous religious organizations in the U.S. seek to influence political decision making, laws in other countries have been introduced to reduce the influence of religion in the public sphere. In June 2019, the provincial government in Quebec, Canada (similar to state governments in the U.S.) passed Bill 21, which prohibits public sector workers, such as teachers, police officers, judges and other provincial government employees from wearing or displaying religious symbols, such as hijabs, turbans and crucifixes, while on duty. Opponents of this bill argue that it is xenophobic and sexist, as it disproportionately impacts non-Christian women who wear scarves or veils (Montpetit and Shingler, 2021). Bill 21 is similar to legislation in France promoting secularism, such as a law passed in 2011 making it illegal to hide the face in public spaces (affecting numerous Muslim women, prohibiting them from wearing a niqab or burqa).
What are your thoughts on governments using the law to promote secularism?
How do such policies relate to assimilation versus pluralism?
How would functionalists and conflict theorists react differently to these laws?
Some of the reasons why the United States is more religious than other industrialized nations are its decisions to allow people the freedom to practice the faith of their choice, and to separate the church from the state. One of the consequences of these decisions was that no unifying faith could develop. In its place, a civil religion, consisting of certain beliefs and practices, formed to bind the population and justify our way of life, with “nationalism” as the religion. It is not a replacement for traditional religion, but rather compliments it with a combination of the sacred and the profane. Patriotism has many religious overtones; consider how people reacted when athletes began to kneel during the National Anthem, or that there is a proper way to dispose of a tattered flag. Many crimes against the state are also perceived as crimes against God; the most economically important time of the year is the months leading to Christmas. Practicing a civil religion is a way to see our country as good and deserving of awe, love and obedience.
Watch and Reflect
An example of nationalism as a civil religion in the U.S. is the reverence people have for songs honoring the country’s history and values, such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic and the National Anthem. Watch this video of comedienne Roseanne Barr singing the National Anthem at a professional baseball game:
What was your reaction? Why did you feel this way?
Barr’s rendition occurred in 1990. Do you think people today would have the same reaction as the crowd did in 1990? Why or why not?
The Future of Religion
Religion as a social institution will always be an integral part of every society since its raison d’etre, or reason for existing, is to give answers to unknowable questions. People will always wonder about why they are alive and what happens after they die, even if science is able to explain how. Nevertheless, religion is a social institution that reflects society’s values; as society changes, so must its religions. We can see this when new religions form or new ways to worship are accepted. A religion that does not continue to meet the needs of its believers will eventually fade away, to be replaced by a new faith that speaks to the people. Current data supports this view. Attendance at religious services is down, and more churches are closing than opening (Shimron, 2021). Nearly three in ten people are not affiliated with a religion. At the same time, a quarter of Americans say they are spiritual, but not religious (Lipka, & Gecewicz, 2020). Society is in the midst of a religious upheaval.
One dramatic change in how religions reach their believers is through the use of electronic methods. Television spawned televangelists who could reach thousands of people; mega-churches are the result of the vast reach of television. The internet has had a similar impact, making a plethora of religious-based materials available at the click of a mouse. It remains to be seen whether this increases engagement; some say the vast number of choices creates ‘religious surfers’ who never fully commit to one practice (Larsen, 2019). The online discourse in the comments section also drives some away (Larsen, 2019). Still, the potential avenues to reach both the faithful and the questioning via social media is too great to ignore; even Pope Francis now has a Twitter account.
The rise of conservatism, noted earlier, may experience a shift in the U.S. as its core demographic – white Christians – ages. The drop in religious affiliation occurred mostly in Christian religions, mostly driven by younger white people joining the ranks of the “nones” (Jones, 2020). Despite their outsize influence, evangelical faiths saw membership shrink in response to their position on social issues unpopular with younger people. As the remaining faithful get older, it remains to be seen how the conservative evangelical movement will respond.
This image is from an annual parade held by the Sikh community in Selma, California. Sikhs are people who follow Sikhism, a monotheistic religion that originated in the Punjab religion of India in the 15th century. Sikhs have been present in the U.S. since the 1890’s. 1Flatworld – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 – Flickr
As the country’s demographics change, so will its religious landscape. The largest population increase is projected for Latinx Americans, who traditionally skew Catholic – though some are converting to evangelical churches. However, with the number of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other religious minorities increasing, the country will likely see more religious diversity and have to address xenophobic attitudes about other faiths (Khan, 2020). In 2018, nearly 19% of hate crimes were based on religion, mostly anti-Jewish (57%), but hate crimes were also committed against Muslims (14%) and Sikhs (4%) (FBI, 2019). The country’s statements about religious tolerance will be tested in the years to come.
Section 13.10 References
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the weakening importance of religion in a society, as it plays less of a role in people’s lives, as they are less guided in their daily behavior by religious beliefs
a doctrine combining religious and political beliefs which emphasizes traditional beliefs and practices