Friday, January 31, 2014

The Great Decline: 60 years of religion

From Religion News Service:
Religiosity in the United States is in the midst of what might be called ‘The Great Decline.’ Previous declines in religion pale in comparison. Over the past fifteen years, the drop in religiosity has been twice as great as the decline of the 1960s and 1970s. ...

During the post-war, baby-booming 1950s, there was a revival of religion. Indeed, some at the time considered it a third great awakening. Then came the societal changes of the 1960s, which included a questioning of religious institutions. The resulting decline in religion stopped by the end of the 1970s, when religiosity remained steady. Over the past fifteen years, however, religion has once again declined. But this decline is much sharper than the decline of 1960s and 1970s. Church attendance and prayer is less frequent. The number of people with no religion is growing. Fewer people say that religion is an important part of their lives. All measures point to the same drop in religion: If the 1950s were another Great Awakening, this is the Great Decline.

Undoubtedly, this is good news, though there are a few problems. The biggest is that the lack of a scale on the left side of the graph makes it hard to interpret.

According to the article, "The top of the graph is two standard deviations above the average; the bottom is three standard deviations below the mean. Differences between two points can be compared with differences between two other points, e.g., the difference between the 1960s and 1980s is a decline of about 1.5 standard deviations, but the difference between the late 1990s and 2012 is nearly three standard deviations."

But the whole point of a graph is to show in visual form what is happening. The decline I get. But for me, this makes the degree of decline harder to grasp with any degree of confidence.

The reason for this is that the graph is "a combination of different measures with different scales." You can find the whole report here, if you wish, but that's bound to add a lot more questions about how the authors combined those "different measures with different scales."

And I really wish the graph started earlier than 1952. (Note that phrase "previous declines in religion." But there's only one previous decline shown on the graph.)

Sure, the data is probably not available any earlier than that - certainly not much earlier. However, the graph shows American religiosity increasing in 1952, but we don't know from what level. (The article says that some considered it "a third great awakening.") Is this "Great Decline" just the normal ebb and flow of religion in America?

I suspect not, but I don't know. And as I've learned more about non-belief in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, I've discovered that being taught nothing about non-belief in America back then doesn't mean that it didn't exist.

One reason I'm cautious is that it's easy to mislead with graphs like this - even unintentionally. But another is that we don't want to assume that progress is inevitable. Yes, we should celebrate our successes, but nothing is inevitable.

Some years ago, I was surprised to discover that racism in many parts of America - race relations, at least - had gotten worse in the early 20th Century, compared to the late 19th Century. OK, sure, that's just a generalization, and the details matter. But that really shocked me.

In my naiveté, I'd assumed that progress was one-directional. But that's not necessarily the case. We've progressed, yes. And we should never minimize that. If you don't recognize your successes, you'll likely become discouraged and apathetic. Celebrate our successes. But you can't assume that further successes are inevitable - or even that we won't slip backwards.

When I was a kid, everyone I knew was a Christian - at least, as far as I knew. No one ever expressed the slightest doubt about God, and you certainly didn't hear atheism discussed in the news media - or anywhere else, either.

Christianity seemed to be universal (in my part of America, I mean - I knew, of course, that other religions existed), but also rather casual. It didn't seem to matter at all which Christian denomination you belonged to, and religion seemed to be kept to church on Sundays (for those Christians who bothered to go to church at all).

Christianity just seemed normal. It was just the default. (Indeed, when my mother urged us to go to church, she didn't say anything about God, let alone Jesus. Church-going was just something decent people did. It was just our culture.)

I swear I never encountered evangelicals or fundamentalists when I was a kid. Even at college, in the very red state of Nebraska, there were only a bare handful of religious nuts. I think I encountered as many atheists as evangelical Christians - a tiny, insignificant number in either case. That's how it seemed to me, at least. (The student body was still overwhelmingly Christian, of course.)

But look at that graph. As religiosity in America has declined, the fanaticism of our religious believers has increased. Not all of them, of course. And most people who don't attend church or don't belong to a particular denomination (the "nones") still believe in a god (almost always the Christian God, since that's the one they were raised to believe).

But it's kind of like the Republican Party. As rational people drift away, the crazy becomes concentrated in those who remain. That tends to drive more people away, which concentrates the true-believers even further.

This is both good and bad. Rather, it's good, but it's also dangerous. And the thing about progress is that there's always a backlash. Look at the progress women have made towards equal rights and the resulting backlash both from religious conservatives and so-called 'men's rights activists.'

This graph does make me optimistic, especially since it confirms the evidence I've seen everywhere else, too. But further progress is not inevitable. The status quo always has immense power, and that's nowhere more obvious than when it comes to religion.

In fact, I suspect that the only reason we can make progress at all is because religious believers can't even agree among themselves. (Obviously, that's one of the problems with being faith-based, rather than evidence-based.)

However, the more threatened they feel, the more they'll be willing to put their differences aside and work together, at least in the short-term. (That's how you can get Bill Donahue and John Hagee pushing the same political party.)

As rational people increasingly abandon religion, the people who remain won't be more rational, but less. And people who think they're losing often become increasingly fearful, increasingly desperate, and increasingly fanatic.

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