Tuesday 30 July 2019

Why Americans Are Losing Confidence In Religion

Why Are Americans Losing Confidence in Organized Religion?

Following on from their poll finding that American confidence in organised religion is continuing to decline, an article by Gallup's Frank Newport analysed the reasons for this decline in greater details.

As I reported a few weeks ago, from being the most respected of American institutions in 1974, with 68% of Americans having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in it, this figure has now sunk to just 36% in 2019.

Organized religion is now in the middle of the pack of 15 institutions covered by this annual poll. It had held top spot until 1985.

Over the same period, the figure for those expressing little or no confidence in organised religion has risen from 11% to 27%. The gap has now closed from 57% to just 9%!

The main reasons for this decline are:

  • Religion, to some extent, though not all, seems to have been swept along in a general distrust of 'big' institutions in general. Only three institutions (the military, small business and the police) have confidence ratings above 50%. Only two of these can be described as big and that's questionable with the way America's police or organized.

    Confidence in government is now at or near all-time lows.

    The same trend can be seen in American's favouring small, local restaurants, and food and beverage producers than large chains. It could be that 'bigness' is associated with the large, organized religions such as Catholic, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, etc. Christianity is tending to fragment into independent local churches, the members of which express distrust in 'organized' religion, seeing their local church as not part of 'organized religion'.
  • More Americans are now inclined to identify themselves as 'nones' although many still describe themselves as 'spiritual'. In effect, they have their own private religion. Whether this growth in 'private religion' has led to a rejection of organised religion, or vice versa is probably difficult to say but distrust would appear to be a major reason to reject organised religion, though not necessarily religion itself.
  • In addition to these adverse trends, there is the added factor that organized religion (and many small, independent churches for that matter) has been shooting itself in the foot, to borrow Frank Newports phrase. He identifies:

    • The Catholic priest abuse scandals have been recurring features in the news for almost two decades now, since The Boston Globe reported its 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on abuse coverup by the Catholic hierarchy.
    • Southern Baptists were roiled this year by allegations of sexual harassment and abuse among that denomination's leaders.
    • The United Methodist Church has been in the news regarding major, denomination-splitting arguments about same-sex marriage and allowing LGBT individuals to be clergy members (at a time when Americans as a whole, including in particular young people, are becoming more accepting of LGBT-related issues).
    • Recent headlines have focused on the controversial firing of the pastor of the famed Riverside Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side, with news stories focused on sexual harassment allegations and a purported sex-shop visit during a religious conference trip.

    Readers of this blog could probably add much more detail to this long litany of criminal activity on the part of priests and nuns going back decades with some churches acting more like organized crime than organised religion.
  • The increasing association between religion and politics in the USA with Protestant churches increasingly identifying with extreme right-wing politics, as highlighted by the enthusiasm of Protestant evangelicals for Donald Trump, and their eagerness to ditch supposed basic Christian principle of marital fidelity, personal integrity, and respect for truth, in pursuit of political power.

    While this might be encouraging to Republicans, it can be doing nothing to encourage Democrats and independents to trust organised and increasingly partisan religion.
  • Social changes, especially in the formation of households and marriage may also be influencing confidence in organised religion. Gallop polling data from 2010-2018 shows that of Americans under 35, those with children and those who are married have significantly more confidence in organised religion than those who have no children or are not married.
  • Newton also identifies the quality and moral failings of church leaders as a possible factor. Religious leaders tend to be in the news nowadays, not for their personal virtues or contribution to religion but for their moral failings and political involvement. The more famous they are they more likely it is that this will be for their wealth and greed, or for their hypocrisy and exploitation of children and vulnerable adults or simply for helping themselves to large sums of church assets.

    Consequently, Americans' view of the honesty and personal integrity of the clergy is at an all time low.

My personal view is that this is part of a broader trend in society and one we have been seeing in Europe for a couple of generations now. It is part of an historical paradox that comes and goes in the relationship between religions and the populations. Religions, by their nature, dependent as they are on dogma and doctrine, and based on the 'revealed wisdom' of ancient prophets and church fathers, find it difficult to change whilst being essentially the same religion.

Societies, on the other hand, evolve and develop and the nature of the relationships between individuals and between the individual and the state (of which religions are an integral part) changes. Eventually, there is a tension between religion, which act as a brake on progress, trying to hold society back in some assumed golden age when people feared God and the priesthood, and what society now regards as socially acceptable and/or morally repugnant. We no longer burn witches and heretics and have largely stripped the churches of their powers to do the many repugnant things their holy books demand and condone

We saw a major reorganisation of Christianity in the Middle Ages when the conspicuous debauchery of the clergy and the corruption within the Catholic Church led to the Protestant Reformation. This had been fueled in part by the Black Death and a reassessment of the relationship between man and God since the intercession of saints, accessible only through the priesthood, had signally failed to bring about relief from a scourge that hit the pious and non-pious equally. People began to question Catholic doctrine and Papal infallibility. The spell had been broken.

Now we no longer regard religious intolerance of female emancipation and homosexuals as moral or acceptable and we no longer regard persecution and demonization of minorities and followers of other faiths as acceptable in a multicultural, multiethnic world. Religions are now rightly seen by many as the cause of conflict and division; the source of strife and unhappiness, as well as the refuge of scoundrel, hypocrites and abusers. Christianity no longer supplies answers acceptable to those asking the questions. And the number of those asking questions is becoming vast.

The tension between the churches and society is now again at breaking point. The churches, unable or unwilling to adjust, are being left to wither away, the architects of their own demise. America is simply catching up with the rest of the civilised world and seeing the churches and their priests as increasingly irrelevant, unreliable, amoral and untrustworthy. The sort of people you wouldn't want to leave in charge of your children.

The Age of Enlightenment is dawning on America; the gloom of religious endarkenment is waning.

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  1. The US have always lagged behind Europe and Australia/NZ when it comes to ditching religion. Perhaps they have seen the light?

  2. One technical quibble, Rosa: the Protestant Reformation came after the Middle Ages, not during them.


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