In a rather cheerful article about the increasing numbers of Americans who insist on secularism, especially among the youth, we get a number of explanations for why young people are leaving religion.
A third explanation [the others being demographic shifts and increasing levels of education --pzm] for the rise of Americans claiming no religion is the increasing politicization of religion. Michael Hout and Claude Fischer argue that the political right has become so identified with a conservative religious agenda that it has alienated moderates who consider organized “religion” a synonym for an antigay, antiabortion, procivic religion agenda. At the same time, while they may feel disenfranchised from organized religion, many of them remain privately religious or “spiritual.” This reaction against the politicization of religion is seen particularly among young adults.
I agree with this. I see it as a psychological coping strategy: as it becomes increasingly obvious that religious explanations fit real world situations poorly, as there is increasing dissonance between faith and reality, people deal with it in rational ways. One way is to distance oneself from specific claims, to generalize, and adopt an increasingly vague term to describe oneself. “Spiritual” is popular. It’s so open and meaningless that conflicts are minimized…and that’s what all of this is about, is reducing disparities between your mental model of how the universe works and your functional behavior.
The article is all about how people and families have adjusted to the declining importance of religion, but I have to say that they left out a few strategies that worry me.
One important long term strategy: we have to recognize that religions are flexible and plastic — even, or especially, the oldest ones are capable of remarkable shifts over time. As dissonance between science and faith increases, don’t expect religions to break. Expect them to adapt and coopt instead (how do you think they managed to last so long, anyway?) We’re already seeing remarkable plasticity in Christianity. Megachurches are crucibles of religious evolution, where the selective pressures are high and the pastors are sensitive to losses in membership and income. Atheists should worry: one beneficial mutation and a new religion could erupt (or possibly worse, atheism becomes that religion).
But the other coping mechanism that we see in play right now is self-reinforcing tribalism. It would be less deleterious to our society for a popular new religion to emerge that accommodates itself to reality better, than for what we see right now: a society fracturing itself as groups wall themselves off into little hothouses of sanctimonious delusion.
The history of creationism is instructive. As we came out of the 19th century, religious people were sincerely trying to reconcile the Bible with science. There were many models proposed for how the book of Genesis, for instance, could accommodate the new geology: there was the gap theory and the day-age theory, and lots of less well integrated attempts to solder faith and rocks together with revelation. But the model that won out, that is now the dominant (but not sole!) form of creationism, is rigid denial. They simply reject the testimony of the rocks, because there is no way their stories can be reconciled.
And how can they do that? Just by forming tight little groups where they repeat their messages to each other incessantly — they are self-affirming enclaves that find vindication by finding other people who want to believe the same things they do. Apes are good social animals who are quite adept at doing that: what rocks and trees and stars are saying is far less significant to an ape-mind than what that other ape who grooms your hair is saying. How do you think Answers in Genesis and the Tea Party can persist, when the real world is shrieking at them at full volume that their myths are false? They simply don’t care.
So I’m a bit more pessimistic than that article. The secular nones are rising, and we could get lucky and just see religious movements slowly fade away and become little more than traditional social groups. But don’t ever lose sight of the fact that, like any group of pathogenic parasites, religions are trying adapt and exploit us, and also that human beings have an amazing capacity for forming weird little subgroups that can have a deadly effect on the body politic.
I’m always getting asked if I think religion will go away and secularism will become dominant. I think the trends are going that way, fortunately, but there’s always this nagging thought in my head that innovation and changing circumstances can bring about novelties that completely upset any trends.
A related story about a religious innovation: That’s what objectivism is, and it certainly does appeal to a subset of the population.