Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The decline and fall of American religion

A new study finds that 20 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation, a percentage that has soared dramatically in the past two decades. This is a seismic shift in American society with ramifications for politics, social policy, economics, education and ethics — in short, for every aspect of American life.

To measure the dramatic shift, think back 50 years to the presidential campaigns and the manned spaceflight program. The religious affiliations of the presidential candidates — a Roman Catholic and a Quaker — were large issues in the 1960 campaign. The seven Mercury astronauts were quizzed regularly about their religious faith and how it affected their preparations for space flight and for potential tragedy. Church affiliation was an important aspect of a businessman's resume just a couple of decades ago. Major banks and other institutions expected their top executives to belong to churches and civic clubs and to be involved in the religious and secular institutions of their communities.

Today, religion gets little notice, and when it is noticed, it is usually in a negative light. Pin some of the blame on religious extremists who wish to impose their views on others, but more broadly, religious affiliation just doesn't matter much any more to voters or to business customers.

American religious history is not one smooth, linear trajectory. There have been various periods of religious fervor interspersed with growing secularism in the past 300 years, but the sudden rise in non-affiliation is unprecedented. Even during earlier periods of less religious fervor, church affiliation filled social as well as religious needs. Today's more insular social style and the spread of electronic social media have reduced the need for churches as a source of personal interaction and friendship.

Americans of the 21st century are among the most religiously ignorant and biblically illiterate in history. A passing knowledge of the Bible and of biblical stories was necessary to understand American literature and literary allusions, but today's generations, as studies have shown, are largely ignorant of biblical stories and biblical characters. They also have little appreciation of the role religion played in the decision making and the personal ethics of people such as Washington and Lincoln.

For many Americans of this century, Sunday is just the second day of the weekend, and churches are an impediment to residential or commercial development.

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