Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On American Religiousness

A new Pew study tells us that Americans are changing their religious affiliations fairly often, that the Catholic Church is not shrinking in size only because of the immigration of new Catholics and that the fastest growing group in the country consists of the religiously unaffiliated. Remember, though, that a small group growing always does that at a rapid initial rate. For instance, a group growing from one to two people has had a 100% increase.

Still, the group of the unaffiliated indeed has become more popular over time:

In the 1980s, the General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center indicated that from 5 percent to 8 percent of the population described itself as unaffiliated with a particular religion.

In the Pew survey 7.3 percent of the adult population said they were unaffiliated with a faith as children. That segment increases to 16.1 percent of the population in adulthood, the survey found. The unaffiliated are largely under 50 and male. "Nearly one-in-five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly 13 percent of women," the survey said.

The rise of the unaffiliated does not mean that Americans are becoming less religious, however. Contrary to assumptions that most of the unaffiliated are atheists or agnostics, most described their religion "as nothing in particular." Pew researchers said that later projects would delve more deeply into the beliefs and practices of the unaffiliated and would try to determine if they remain so as they age.

I beg to differ with the interpretation in that last paragraph, though. To say that your religion is "nothing in particular" is surely less religious than stating that you believe in god or gods or the tao, say. But yes, by all means let's have more studies concerning this religion of nothing in particular.

After reading about the Pew results I searched for more information on the megachurches: the very large nondenominational churches which have attracted so many Americans in the recent decade. I wanted to find out the rate at which they are born, the rate at which they die and how long they survive, on average. But I wasn't very successful. Still, this is interesting:

When Abundant Living Family Church opened in December, staff members gave tours - not to show off the newly painted chapel or well-stocked recreation room, but to make sure members don't get lost.

Even the main sanctuary, which seats almost 4,000 people, can be hard to find because it competes with the children's church, classrooms, administration building and other amenities on 30 acres.

The nondenominational church on Civic Center Drive is colossal, having more than 7,000 members.

"We have big SUVs, we're building bigger homes. ... I think people find safety and security in something that's big," said Pastor Diego Mesa, the church's founder.


Enormous churches with parishioners in the thousands aren't new - a half dozen existed at the turn of the century - but the phenomenon has grown in recent years.

According to Megachurches Today 2005, a study put out by Hartford Institute for Religion Research, there were more than 1,200 megachurches in 2005, 178 of them in California. That figure is double what it was in 2000, and according to the study, the trend doesn't seem to be slowing.

What seems to be different about these new megachurches is that they are like small societies, with restaurants, bowling clubs, bookstores, psychological counselors, music and art and daycare services, and that they are run like profit-making businesses. Given that latter angle, it's worth questioning how vulnerable such churches are to losing popularity among the congregants and how tricky it is to keep one of those behemoths alive during any downswing in attendance figures.

At the same time, I'm struck by how these megachurches make religion a part of most aspects of the congregants' lives. This is not unlike some of the things I've read about Islam as not being just a religion but a complete way of life. Can the same thing be said about the American megachurches? And if so, what will the very conservative religious theology they seem to practice mean for the values the churchgoers will have? To take an example, at least one megachurch will not let women run any workshops or study groups which men attend, because of that Biblical prescription against women teaching men. Will the members of this church start demanding similar rules in the wider society?