Monday, January 14, 2013

American religious allegiance declines

Religion is going out of style in America. That's about the only conclusion one can draw from a new Pew Research Center study reported by NPR. And while some might see this as nothing more than an evolution in American thinking, it is profoundly more than that. It is a change in thought, action, concern and affiliation.

Leaving aside the assertion that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" (an argument that has a rational foundation but is not strictly correct), religion, and especially the Protestant form of Christianity, has had a profound influence on American thought and institutions. Some of America's greatest educational institutions, including its oldest college, Harvard, were founded by religious groups. Not that long ago, church attendance was an expectation in many areas. I well remember editing press releases from a major bank that included the church membership of ever vice president, junior executive or banking officer promoted by the bank. It was essential information, from the bank's perspective, showing the employee's involvement in the community.

Involvement plays a role in the decline of religious affiliation. Not only are young people, in particular, refraining from joining churches, they are also not joining civic clubs, bowling leagues and fraternal organizations. American individuality has sparked a reluctance to get involved in anything, from churches to neighborhood associations. And that bodes ill for American politics and government. People who don't associate with groups don't feel a sense of common interests and goals; it's every man (and woman) for himself/herself). Ultimately, that attitude can destroy democracy, which depends on common interests and compromise to create majority rule.

The loss of religion (32 percent of those under 30 say they have no religious affiliation) also implies a loss of meaning to life. All religions, at their foundations, began with a search for the meaning of life. Without religion, life loses its meaning, perhaps even loses its quest for meaning. Religion attempts to answer the question of what are we, other than a collection of cellular matter, electrical connections and evolutionary product. That quest keeps the religiously observant grounded in something more than themselves. The loss of that quest is a collective loss, a loss to society, to philanthropy and to philosophy.

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