A Canadian perhaps can be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu as the word comes out that organized religion in the United States is in trouble.
In a new study released October 9, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life announced that “Nones” are “on the rise” and “growing at a rapid pace.” Some 20 percent of Americans, including a third of adults under 30, “have no religious affiliation”—up considerably from Gallup figures of 2 percent through the 1960s and 10 percent through the 1990s. The Nones are now second only to Catholics, ahead of previous juggernauts such as Southern Baptists.
The “No Religion” gain has been almost totally at the expense of white Protestants. The Protestant market share has dropped from some 70 percent in 1950 to just under 50 percent today. In contrast, bolstered by immigration, the shares of Catholicism (close to 25 percent) and Other Faiths (about 7 percent) have changed little.
The immediate interpretation of such a rise in “Religious Nones” is that secularization, so familiar to Western Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, has caught up to the United States. Further, given that Millennials are the least affiliated generation in American history and unlikely to affiliate as they age, “the religious recession” is not about to end anytime soon.
No question—the percentage of Nones is up, but partly because of cultural inflation. These days, people who don’t belong and don’t believe can tell things the way they are. So it is that veteran trend-watcher Martin Marty comments that religious cohesion “has long been overstated.”
Unknown to many, Canada has “been there” and “done that” when it comes to Religious Nones. In this country, the no religion patterns have pretty much paralleled those of the United States—along with the high casualties among Mainline Protestants. Today, the “no religion” figure here may even be about five percentage points higher than it is there. Canadian weekly attendance has plummeted much more dramatically, from a higher-than-American level of some 60 percent in 1945 to a current, much lower-than-American level of under 20 percent. Welcome to Religious Polarization
The advantage of having experienced such religious hits a bit earlier is that we also have had a bit more time to figure out what happened.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, we chalked things up to secularization, assuming Canada was paying the inevitable price for coming of age. On occasion, though, we wondered why it didn’t seem to be happening in “the States.” Significantly, many Canadian groups tried to learn things by looking south.
For a short period of time as we moved into the 21st century, there was some talk of possible religious rejuvenation—stimulated in part by my 2001 tome, Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada. In keeping with the thinking of sociologist Rodney Stark, I argued that the demand for the kinds of answers religion brings to life and death means the market for religion remains extensive. As a result, it would only be a matter of time before groups—both new and renewed—would emerge to meet the demand.
I now am convinced that neither secularization nor revitalization theories accurately describe what is taking place in Canada and elsewhere, including the United States. Global data make it very clear that, in every society across the planet, religion persists—along with the inclination of some people to take a pass on religion.
Therefore, rather than speaking of one-way trends toward secularization or revitalization, it seems more accurate and helpful to view pro-religion and no-religion as the poles of a dynamic continuum. At any point in time, a society’s inclination to opt for one over the other will vary, depending on “pro-religion” and “no-religion” factors that are organizational and cultural in nature. But the proclivity to opt for religion will always co-exist with the proclivity to reject it, with noteworthy numbers of people occupying something of an ambivalent middle.
In Beyond the Gods & Back(2011), I have described such a situation as polarization. In using the term, I am speaking simply of the inclination of populations to embrace religion versus reject it. Note that I am not speaking of cultural wars or cultural conflict, as articulated by people like James Davison Hunter in Culture Wars or Robert Putnam and David Campbell in Amazing Grace. I regard the ideas and behavior of people who value faith and those who do not as potentially important correlates of their respective positions that are fodder for empirical research, something I explore in the book in some detail.
While some observers may be startled by the growth of Nones in the United States and see ongoing secularization as virtually inevitable, I am not among them. The reason is that so-called “American religious exceptionalism” is simply proving not to be so exceptional after all. Historically, the religious polarization continuum in the U.S. has been weighted heavily on the pro-religion side. Currently, there is some modest movement in the direction of the no religion side. Such balance between religion and no religion is universal.
But, as with elsewhere, the story is hardly final and we need to keep the camera running. The religion market is always “up for grabs.” Following Stark, the increase in the percentage of Nones means the opportunity exists for religious groups to increase their market shares. Apart from outcomes, there is little doubt we will see accelerated activity in the American religious marketplace.
An important word of caution: my research in Canada has been showing, that, at least to date, residence in the no religion category often tends to be short-lived. Many teenage Nones are looking to religious groups for rites of passage that may result in reaffiliation. Nones who marry “Somethings” frequently raise their children as “Somethings” and not uncommonly follow suit. Further, large numbers of adult and teenage Nones indicate they have not slammed the door on involvement that they deem to be worthwhile.
In Canada, the reality of religious polarization is a far cry from what was anticipated by theories of linear secularization. It is literally A New Day for religion, where market demand remains high, precisely at a time when growing numbers are rejecting religion. Changing demographics and varied market performances are contributing to a restructuring of players. But the inclinations to embrace religion and reject religion co-exist, with the balance always in dynamic flux. Such religious polarization, as I’ve been emphasizing, is found everywhere–even now, as the Pew Forum data remind us, in the United States.
A cause for pause? The inclination of Americans to opt for “pro-religion” or “no religion” will depend largely on how the nation’s religious groups collectively respond with life-enhancing ministry. The news of the rise in Religious Nones does not signal demise and doom for religion. On the contrary, it signals new opportunities, and the need for appropriate responses.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog .
This article is adapted and excerpted from A New Day: The Resilience & Restructuring of Religion in Canada by Reginald W. Bibby, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
A New Day: The Resilience & Restructuring of Religion in Canada
by Reginald Bibby
The Canadian religious situation is being read through the old, tired eyes of secularization. Most people continue to think that religion is winding down, as seen in trends characterizing Mainline Protestants—the United, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. This highly accessible report draws on Bibby’s important new book, Beyond the Gods and Back, in showing religion in Canada as not dying but persists in a new environment of religious polarization. It’s a “New Day” for religion.
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Managing Polarities in Congregations: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities
by Roy M. Oswald and Barry Johnson
A polarity is a pair of truths that need each other over time. When an argument is about two poles of a polarity, both sides are right and need each other to experience the whole truth. This phenomenon has been recognized and written about for centuries in philosophy and religion, and the research is clear: leaders and organizations that manage polarities well outperform those who don’t.
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by Stephen Chapin Garner with Jerry Thornell
In Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality, Stephen Chapin Garner and Jerry Thornell share the story of their home congregation, the United Church of Christ in Norwell, MA. This average congregation has approached congregational life in a not-so-average way. Garner and Thornell don’t claim to have the secret to church growth and vitality, but in sharing the story of their simple church in New England, they give hope and innovative ideas to congregations in regions all over the country.
Lost in the Middle? Claiming an Inclusive Faith for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical
by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner
There exists a deep and broad population of Christians who feel the labels of “liberal”and “evangelical” both describe their faith and limit their expression of it. By working to reclaim the traditional, historical meanings of these terms, and showing how they complement rather than oppose each other, Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner stake a claim for the moderate Christian voice in today’s polarized society .
Found in the Middle! Theology and Ethics for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical
by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner
As a follow up to Lost in the Middle?, Found in the Middle! offers a foundational approach to the theology and ethics that undergird a congregation where moderate Christians can thrive. Wildman and Garner serve as helpful guides on a quest for a humble theology, an intelligible gospel message, a compelling view of church unity, and a radical ethics deeply satisfying to most Christians with both liberal and evangelical instincts .
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