Monday, December 3, 2007

Is religion declining or growing in American?

I recently came across an interesting talk by Princeton sociology professor Robert Wunthnow "Myths About American Religion" given at a conference sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, among others.

He discussed what he views as five myths about religion in America.

One, America is in the midst of a religious and spiritual awakening.
Two, There is no secularization [happening in the church].
Third, Politics is driving people from the church.
Fourth, Membership in evangelical denominations is growing.
Fifth, The culture war is over or never happened.
I think he's right in suggesting that general religious sentiment is not necessarily growing in America and his myths are generally on target though I think he broad brushes a couple of things too much. I do think the seeds of a spiritual awakening are present though not on a macro level in society. And his fourth myth, that membership in evangelical denominations is growing is a bit misleading because in that section he says,
None of this is to suggest that conservative Protestantism is declining or is not a vibrant factor in American religious life. It does, however, chal­lenge observers to be more nuanced in their inter­pretations. Evangelicalism is not experiencing the huge growth suggested by figures from stories about megachurches.
What are the reasons for the decline in church attendance and religious practice? The only one he gives is people are delaying getting married and because church attendance is more likely among married folks with children the numbers of people attending church is down.

I think major influence is the ubiquitous nature and influence of materialism. That in our incredible material prosperity many people have bought into the illusion that we really don't need God. That we can "do it quite well on our own thank you". We've lost sight of the fact that our blessings, both material and spiritual, ultimately come from the hand of God.

And of course, there's a philosophical aspect to this materialism or secularism which permeates our educational institutions and the broader media. It's the belief that what's really real is only what we can physically touch and experience. A spiritual realm is merely speculative at best. Religion when discussed is like any other pastime, e.g. sports, music, movies, or personal fitness. It's something people treat as a consumer product rather than addressing the fundamental questions about man's existence, e.g. what is man, why do I exist, what does God expect of me, and where do I go when I die.

Ultimately, a society can't long survive if materialism/secularism is the reigning view. It denies reality. Europe which is on the cutting edge of this materialist/secular road is a culture in decline for many reasons and most obviously evidenced by the fact that it is a culture not reproducing itself. They are a dying society.

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