The End of Religion As We Know It?

“I have seen the future of religion in America, and its name is ‘none.’’” So begins a recent piece at the Huffington Post by Gary Laderman, the Chair of the Department of Religion at Emory University. The reason for Laderman’s prediction? The religious landscape in American is apparently undergoing a momentous shift:

Increasing, if not historic, numbers of Americans are claiming no religious affiliation when asked to state their religious identity, and more and more are embracing ‘spirituality’ as an alternative religious brand that is not tradition-specific, but is more in line with the democratic spirit of individual tastes.

In explaining the reasons for this shift, Laderman offers a good deal of reasonable insight. For example, he points to the lasting legacy of the 1960’s, the rise of popular culture as an alternative to traditional religious institutions as a source of morality and meaning, and our consumer inclinations to customize our religious life.

But I’d argue he crosses a bridge too far with his last paragraph, which I’ll quote here in full:

Finally, the rise of the “nones” surely suggests it is the end of religion as we know it. Forget churches; forget priests and pastors; forget the Bible; forget organized religion generally. What is sacred are no longer conventional objects like a cross, a singular religious identity like being a Methodist, nor activities like going to church or prayer. Instead, the religious worlds in the contemporary and future United States are robust and capacious, providing an abundance of spiritual possibilities found in unexpected places like drum circles and meditation exercises, sports events and other expressions from popular culture. It is a brave new world for religious Americans who are increasingly unhinged from traditional authorities and institutions.

This idea dovetails his prediction earlier in the piece that “the faithful will cry the sky is falling, and the world is clearly coming to end with this movement away from traditional, authoritative religious institutions.”

Or maybe not. Let me suggest a few alternative lines of response for at least the Christian “faithful”:

1. Reports of Christianity’s demise in America might be greatly exaggerated.

Admittedly, wading into conflicting survey/statistical interpretation and analysis potentially opens up a whole range of issues. That said, even if there is an increase in self-described “nones,” that doesn’t necessarily suggest that there are fewer people interested in Christianity. In fact, in a 2011 article in the Wall St. Journal, Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson (the co-directors of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University) point to indicators that such interest has been largely stable for some time. 

This isn’t to say that a robust Christian faith will always exist by default or shouldn’t be vigilant in understanding and rightly responding to cultural change. On the other hand, it has been pronounced dead many times before, only to outlast its undertakers.

2. Historically speaking, Christianity has not been intimidated by a pluralistic society and religion a la carte.

When assessing the current cultural climate, it’s striking how similar it is in many ways to the culture of the ancient world. Then, as now, there was a proliferation of different religious options, few of which demanded their adherents’ exclusive devotion. Religious syncretism abounded.

Even so, this was the culture into which Christianity was born and subsequently thrived. It becomes difficult to argue, then, that such a culture necessarily heralds a culture in which activities like “going to church or prayer” are nothing more than relics of the past. 

3. Analysis like Laderman’s underestimates the appeal of biblical Christianity in a culture such as ours.

Many find a relativistic approach (i.e., all views are legitimate) to religion, morality, etc., to be freeing, even comforting, at least for a time. Some, however, fairly come to question whether one can find anything of real substance if so many choices and views are equally valid. 

In such an environment, Christianity’s clearly defined explanation of reality and exclusive allegiance to Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life” are often very attractive. And the fact that so many people throughout history have found these claims to be compelling certainly doesn’t hurt either.  

So the future of Christianity in America? We shall see. 

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