In a two-week-old Associated Press story, Mark Chaves is quoted at length as saying that a “decline,” or at least a “softening,” is concealed behind the apparent resurgence in American religion over the past few decades. Chaves, a sociologist of religion from Duke Divinity School and head of the Lilly Endowment-funded National Congregations Study, has a brand-new book out, called American Religion: Contemporary Trends (Palgrave Macmillan). This story is of a piece with the so-called “rise of the nones,” one of the big religion stories of 2009. That’s when the Pew Forum released its study showing that 16% of adult Americans are “nones,” i.e., do not identify themselves as affiliated with any one religious tradition or denomination. The big AP story based on American Religion focused on more or less the same point: Chaves says that 18% of adult Americans, a higher proportion than at any time previously, now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated.
Chaves’s work is especially interesting, though, because Chaves himself is an exceptionally smart and nuanced thinker; his previous scholarship has given good reasons to question too-simple descriptions of changes in the religious landscape (like the idea that American society is getting “more religious” or “less religious” overall). His 2010 presidential address to the SSSR focused on the chimera of “religious congruence.” “Religious congruence” refers to the assumption that religious people’s beliefs are the primary determinant of their actions in other areas of their lives, and that religious belief systems, as learned and practiced by adherents, are internally coherent. As Chaves points out, religious congruence is mostly a mirage. What people say they believe (to a pollster, for example) frequently doesn’t match closely with what they actually do. To name one well-established example, we’ve known for a while now that people don’t attend worship services as often as they say they do in surveys. We also know, thanks to Scripps survey data, that even though most Americans call themselves Christians, many of them reject Christian theological claims despite their authority and canonicity — most, for example, don’t believe in the idea of a physical resurrection, despite the fact that they “should”. Similarly, the fact that a survey respondent describes him- or herself as a “none” tells us very little about his or her beliefs — many “nones,” in fact, profess a profound faith in something that sounds a lot like a traditional monotheistic God. There’s plenty of room for potentially fascinating speculation here, but fundamentally, the picture that emerges from this work is one in which traditional, institutionally-grounded religious identities are fraying at the edges and receding in importance.
One of the most interesting commentaries on the AP story came from Jason Pitzl-Waters’s Pagan blog, The Wild Hunt (if you don’t know it, it’s worth checking out). Pitzl-Waters suggests that many of the new “nones,” people who have abandoned the (mostly Christian) religious identities of their childhoods, may in fact have taken up one variety or another of contemporary Paganism, especially in the form of “nature spirituality” à la Bron Taylor. The point here isn’t the numbers — Pitzl-Waters isn’t, I don’t think, trying to claim that there’s a huge uncounted contingent of Pagans out there who don’t show up in surveys — but rather:
when we are talking about the decline of “religion” in the West, what we really seem to be talking about is a decline in traditional “churched” congregations. These “unchurched” individuals aren’t becoming atheists or religion-free agnostics, but are instead building their own spiritual practices, or turning to decentralized open movements like modern Paganism.
Why is this important? I think it’s important because it points to the importance of theoretical questions in some very practical, immediate contexts. One of the key quotes from Chaves in the AP story is that “It’s not like there’s a lot of hostility toward religion in the United States… It’s just that there’s been a softening of religiosity.” What may perhaps be equally to the point is that we’re seeing a “softening” of the concept of religion — a growing awareness of the rather severe limitations of the term “religion” as ordinarily used for describing what people actually do and think.