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In the 1940s and 1950s, only about five percent of adult Americans did not identify themselves with any institutional religion, according to the General Social Survey. That number rose to only eight percent in 1990. By 2013, however, the percentage of people who don’t consider themselves part of a religion had jumped to twenty percent. Interestingly, there was no discernible upward trend in the percentage of people who expressed atheist or agnostic beliefs. Several implications can be drawn.

One implication is that it cannot be assumed that a person does not believe in “God” just because he or she does not belong to an institutional religion. Indeed, “atheism” does not make sense without a “theism.”  Put another way, atheism is part of the religious paradigm, serving as the negation of a theist belief. People can be spiritual without being religious. This does not mean that they are “new age.” Nietzsche, for example, was accused of being an atheist just because he criticized the dominant conception of God (as, for example, being vengeful). A vice ascribed to the deity in how it is being conceptualized discredits the conceptualization itself. “God is dead.” This does not mean that the living God of experience is discredited, as it does not depend on the concepts that are ascribed to it.

Another implication is societal in nature. As the percentage of people not identifying themselves with a religious paradigm (i.e., basic framework, including of concepts and conduct such as ritual and prayer) increases in a society, the religious world-view itself becomes increasingly demarcated as delimited in nature. That is, the default in society turns to viewing the religious world-view as foreign rather than as a given. The disparate nature of the religious paradigm as being very different makes it easy for the non-religious to keep away from it, as well as to view it as foreign. The world of religion is perhaps inherently delimited because its concepts do not have currency outside of the religious paradigm. The historical hegemony or even universality of religions in societies may therefore have been artificial in nature, such as by means of being forced on people. If so, the declining salience of religion in modern society may be nature’s way of restoring to religion its rightful place, similar to how water finds its way eventually down the stream.

Another implication is that it may not be reasonable to assume that even a highly charismatic leader of a particular religion, or sect thereof, can bring people back to religion. The assumption that such a leader could accomplish such a feat presumes that 1) not belonging to an institutional religion is a problem and 2) the problem does not lie in the religions themselves, or in religion itself. Also assumed is the problematic assumption that a leader can make such a difference. It may be that religion itself puts too much emphasis on the religious leader or founder, attributing too much significance to him or her relative to the value of the teachings themselves. Such anthropomorphism may be one reason why not identifying with a religion is not a problem, but, rather, a sign of spiritual health instead. According to David Hume, the human mind has great trouble holding on to “pure” concepts of divine simplicity. We tend to add our own human characteristics to the divine, even to the point of constructing the god-man concept. If religion is incapable of being purged of error, it is right and fitting that people refuse to identify themselves as not belonging to a religious institution.

Besides the implications above, one question that “comes out of the data” regards whether people who do not belong to an institutional religion can sufficiently “exercise” their spirituality. A related question is whether spirituality can exist apart from the religions. One might also ask how well spirituality can do within a religion. To the extent that a given religion (or religion itself) is rigid, it may be that certain expressions or manifestations of spirituality are snuffed out or excluded outright. The trend of “none-religious” may provide more opportunities for spirituality to come into its own. We should not assume, in other words, that the trend is toward secularity if it is defined as the absence of spirituality in addition to religion.

 

See Katherine Bindley’s article, “Religion Among Americans Hits Low Point, As More People Say They Have No Religious Affiliation: Report,” at the Huffington Report on March 13, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/13/religion-america-decline-low-no-affiliation-report_n_2867626.html?utm_hp_ref=religion

 

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