Sunday, May 03, 2009

Reasons for switching religions

Here is an interesting oped about shifting religious affiliations: Defecting on Faith. While the number of unaffiliated in the US is growing, Charles Blow takes a look at those who moved in the other direction:

“Most people are religious because they’re raised to be. They’re indoctrinated by their parents.”

So goes the rationale of my nonreligious friends.

Maybe, but a study entitled “Faith in Flux” issued this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life questioned nearly 3,000 people and found that most children raised unaffiliated with a religion later chose to join one. Indoctrination be damned. By contrast, only 14 percent of those raised Catholic and 13 percent of those raised Protestant later became unaffiliated.

(It should be noted that about a quarter of the unaffiliated identified as atheist or agnostic, and the rest said that they had no particular religion.)

So what was the reason for this flight of the unchurched to churches?

Did God appear in a bush? Did the grass look greener on the other side of the cross? Or was it a response to the social pressure of being nonreligious in a very Christian country?

None of those reasons topped the list. Most said that they first joined a religion because their spiritual needs were not being met. And the most-cited reason for settling on their current religion was that they simply enjoyed the services and style of worship.

For these newly converted, the nonreligious shtick didn’t stick. There was still a void, and communities of the faithful helped fill it.

This is an important point - but he follows it up with this advice for the unaffiliated:

As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign. It’s the part that fears loneliness, craves companionship and needs affirmation and fellowship.

We are more than cells, synapses and sex drives. We are amazing, mysterious creatures forever in search of something greater than ourselves.

I was thinking there was something odd about these statements. Then I got an e-mail from Laura Sizer that totally hit on the mark:

"Why not say that we are cells, synapses & sex drives that are in search of something greater? And, I like how he slides from 'human exceptionalism' to 'love and compassion'. I mean what many religions (not all) do is reassure us that we are special - different from animals, from other religious faiths even, and this is deeply problematic in all sorts of ways. Yes, there is often talk of love and compassion, but it competes with the exceptionalism claim with all sorts of disastrous results."

This is an excellent point! Perhaps, a better approach may be to emphasize human commonality with other species. And of course, this compels me to bring up Sagan (hey - I have no choice. I think I was setup):

For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring. (from Cosmos)

By the way, the Pew report also looked at why people become unaffiliated - and note that it is not because of modern science (emphasis added):

About half of those who have become unaffiliated say - in response to the survey's yes-or-no questions - that they became unaffiliated, at least in part, because they think of religious people as hypocritical, judgmental or insincere. Large numbers also say they became unaffiliated because they think that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality, or that religious leaders are too focused on money and power rather than truth and spirituality. Another reason cited by many people who are now unaffiliated is the belief that many religions are partly true but no single religion is completely true. Fewer people, however, say they became unaffiliated because they think modern science proves that religion is just superstition, indicating that the belief that science disproves religion is a less important reason for becoming unaffiliated than disenchantment with religious people or institutions.

So next time when you someone solely blames (or celebrates) science for the decline of religion, you can point towards the Pew study.

Read the full oped here, and you can find the Pew Forum Report on Faith in Flux here.


Anonymous said...

Exceptionalism has little to do with religion and everything to do with human nature. Here is an example of secular exceptionalism.

Virgil Aeneid, VI 853: "Remember, Roman, these will be your arts: to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer, to spare defeated peoples, to tame the proud." As translated by Allen Mandelbaum.

Here, Virgil is claiming a divine mandate for Roman conquest. Obviously the conquests came first, Virgil's backfill came second.

Great blog, by the way! You give everyone lots to think about.

Salman Hameed said...

"Exceptionalism has little to do with religion and everything to do with human nature."

Oh totally. But it gets appropriated in a particular way - and that's what the Blow article was doing. Thanks for the Virgil reference!

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