Tuesday, March 18, 2008

American Religious Landscape

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released its “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. I was very excited about this and read what I could of it on line. Odd thing was it had nothing to with landscape. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are forest religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are desert religions. So I was surprised that a study of religious landscape told me lots about how many people belonged to these religions, but did not locate them in their appropriate landscapes. Jews in Miami, for example, makes no sense. There is no desert in Miami.

Geography aside, what the survey does show is that Americans change religions constantly, and that “unbelief” is on the rise. Unbelief is not a term I normally use; so let me explain that unbelievers are people who believe that what other people believe is simply unbelievable. That makes Jews unbelievers with regard to Catholics, for example; and Catholics unbelievers with regard to Hindus. No wonder it is a growing category. Everybody is an unbeliever when it comes to some one who believes other than they do. So I don’t know how much we can learn from that statistic. Here some others:

1. There are as many “secular unaffiliated” Americans as Methodist Americans. 2. There are more “religious yet unaffiliated” Americans than Lutheran Americans. 3. In Oregon there are almost as many people with no religion as there are Evangelicals.

What can we make of this? Is religion on its way out?

I don’t think religion is dying, but some major brands are tanking. For example 2 out of 3 people who say they grew up Jehovah’s Witness, have left that faith. The number of Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and Lutherans are down. And there are almost as many atheists as Jews in the United States (but that may be because so many Jews are atheists).

So what does this say about the future of religion in America? Will we soon change our Pledge to “One Nation Under Whomever”? I doubt it. What the survey is saying is that as in other fields of marketing, brands die and brand loyalty is fickle, and that religious labels mean less and less to more and more Americans.

I think the survey is encouraging. It says that American’s are experimenting with different religions, and putting the freedom to think for themselves ahead of the obligation to believe what they are told. It says that we can judge faiths based on our personal needs rather than God’s commands. It says that we can change faiths the way we change toothpaste. And that can only lead to fresher breath and a whiter smile. It’s the American way.

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