I belong to a group that this year officially became a minority — church-goers. A recent Gallup poll cited in the Washington Post revealed that “for the first time, a majority of Americans do not belong to a religious institution such as a church or synagogue.”
That is not news to the minority of Forest Parkers who still go to church on Sunday, temple on Saturday, or the Islamic Center on Friday. St. Peter Lutheran, St. Paul Lutheran, the United Church of Christ, the Methodist and Presbyterian churches — all closed because of declining membership and therefore income.
That participation in organized religious communities has been shrinking nationwide is backed up by tons of data. A 2004 Gallup poll showed that 84% of Americans identified as Christians, whereas today the Washington Post referenced polling that in 2021 revealed only 65% say they are Christian, while surveys reveal 28% say they are atheist, agnostic or have no religious affiliation (nones).
And the trend seems to be accelerating. The younger the age group in this country, the less likely they are to be religious. The percentage of Americans in their 70s who say they are “religiously unaffiliated” is 12% but it’s 38% in the 18- to 29-year-old cohort.
I blame the decline on what I will call “systemic secularism.” Like the term systemic racism, the concept argues that although there may be individuals who are not secularized or racist, there is something about the system, something about the spiritual ecology that we live in that is secular or racist.
In contrast to Africa and South America, where the Christian church is growing, north of the equator it seems even the air we breathe is secular. A group of my friends and I were talking about how intractable many of the social problems our country is facing seem to be, and I asked them if they ever prayed for solutions. Half said “no.”
When I asked another group of friends what will happen to them when they die, 2/3 said “nothing” — no heaven, no hell, no reincarnation, no becoming one with the universe. Nothing.
To Dan Haley’s credit, this newspaper often covers stories about religion, both institutional religion, as in churches or denominational colleges and folks who are spiritual but not religious. But in the national media Judy Woodruff, who herself identifies as an Episcopalian, interviewed a person from one of the states in the South that had been hit hard by one the recent hurricanes.
The person interviewed said the devastation was so massive, all he and the members of his community could do was pray. With a look of genuine concern on her face, Woodruff said to the man, “Our thoughts are with you.” She just couldn’t say, “Our prayers are with you.”
Even though a Pew Research Center survey taken two years ago revealed that 90% of Americans believe in “some kind of higher power” and another Pew poll indicated that 55% pray daily and that another 16% pray weekly, she reverted to the least common denominator: “Our thoughts are with you.”
In an environment characterized by systemic secularism, when push comes to shove, religion is what gets shoved.
When I was growing up in the 1950s the only businesses open on Sundays were restaurants and gas stations. Friday nights and Saturdays were when my neighbors did their shopping. And then chains like Walmart came to town and were open on Sundays, which forced almost every other business to open on Sunday as well.
In the 1950s before corporate giants like Walmart upset the voluntary cultural equilibrium, there were no laws enforcing businesses being closed on the first day of the week. The peer pressure in the system, if you will, enforced the “no business on the Sabbath” rule. But by the time Walmart arrived, the cultural ecosystem had changed enough so that no one in town was able to form a critical mass of protest to convince Walmart to observe the Sabbath.
By then cultural climate change was making certain species of institutions endangered. It’s all in the name of freedom of choice, of course, but something has been lost in this free market of ideas and beliefs.
A friend of mine who grew up in a family of “nones” (no religion) and was religiously and biblically illiterate once told me with excitement in his voice that he had read in some progressive magazine like Mother Jones about an innovative concept — taking one day a week to “re-create” and restore by not doing any work.
I tried to respond by affirming his discovery but I had to let him know that the idea had been around for more or less 3,000 years.
“The deeper question,” wrote Derek Thompson in a piece for The Atlantic, dated Sept. 26, 2019, “is whether the sudden loss of religion has social consequences for Americans who opt out. Secular Americans … may not have examined how organized religion has historically offered solutions to their modern existential anxieties.”
Creating and sustaining community, he noted, finding a place of calm in the midst of the storm, and making peace with an often unfair world is hard.
“Although belief in God is no panacea for these problems,” Thompson concluded, “religion is more than a theism. It is a bundle: a theory of the world, a community, a social identity, a means of finding peace and purpose, and a weekly routine.
“Those, like me, who have largely rejected this package deal, often find themselves shopping à la carte for meaning, community, and routine to fill a faith-shaped void. Their politics is a religion. Their work is a religion. Their spin class is a church. And not looking at their phone for several consecutive hours is a Sabbath.”
And, he speculates, “Millions of Americans have abandoned religion, only to re-create it.”
Tom Holmes writes a regular column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.