An interesting article on BBC on the rising numbers of the so-called "nones" in America, people who would in the past have ticked the Christian box, when asked for religious affiliation, and who now tick "none". Most of them are not atheists, i.e., explicit and firm in their rejection of a supernatural worldview. Those numbers are rising too, from 1% to 5%. The larger part of those 40% who do not self-identify as religiously affiliated are "religious but not spiritual". Weekly church attendance in the United States went down from about 40% in 1970 to 33% in 2010. There is a clear downward trend in church membership. Mainline protestants are hit hardest, but evangelicals do not do well either. Catholics should not be complacent - their steep decline in membership is masked by the influx of Hispanics.
It is not easy to find out why this is happening. I was reminded by a lovely lecture by the gerontologist Vern Bengston at Oxford some months ago. He examined how aging correlates with religiosity. Particularly: is the fact that we see mainly older people in church a cohort effect (i.e., younger generations are less churchy) or an age effect (i.e., when one gets older one thinks "Oh, no, I'm going to die, I'll better go to church then!).
- do you believe in God or a higher power?
- would you describe yourself as a religious person - what does this mean?
- would you describe yourself as a spiritual person - what does this mean?
Interestingly, he found that the people who were from the oldest generation (born in 1915 or before) often did not know what "spiritual" means, e.g., one woman, who had been a churchgoer for 70 years said "I don't understand this question".
Then the generation born between 1916-1945 understand the term "spiritual" as roughly synonymous with "religious". However, younger people in this generation do start to make a distinction between organized religion and personal religion, e.g., one respondent "I can communicate between God, but I do not identify with organized religion"
The generation born between 1945 and 1954 (the baby boomers) are, in Bengston's survey, the ones who are primarily responsible for disconnecting spirituality and religion. This is a typical quote from one of the participants in this age group "To me religion is what building you go to, what time you go, and what they tell you to believe. I feel that religion is too invested in perpetuating itself. I don't need some man standing in the pulpit telling me what's right or wrong" - so strangely, it's here that a dichotomy seems to arise between what people perceive as dry, drab organized religion, the thing you do once in church, and the profound, personal connection with the spiritual (roughly, the numinous, I guess). This trend is continued in the younger generations.
So for me a plausible reason for declining church membership is this perceived dichotomy between "spiritual" (religious experience, personal religious beliefs etc) and "religious" (identifying with a religious denomination or church and its creeds, moral recommendations etc). Once you assume that one excludes the other, there's not much left in the way of motivation for attending religious services. Perhaps some moral teachings, and people don't feel so happy others telling them what they should think or do. But why did the dichotomy arise in the first place?