A widening divide between the religious and the "nones"

COLLEEN CARROLL CAMPBELL

In their 1985 bestseller, Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah and his coauthors introduced America to a peculiar new religion: "Sheilaism."

Its founder, Sheila Larson, was a young nurse who had concluded after many rounds of psychotherapy that she believed in God, but not the God of organized religion. Instead, her deity was virtually synonymous with herself and he demanded little more than that she love herself and "listen to my own little voice." Marveling at this radically individualistic faith, Bellah concluded that there could be potentially millions of Sheilas in America, each following his own invented belief system that "elevate[s] the self into a cosmic principle."

The recently released results of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey suggest Bellah was right. The survey found that while most Americans today identify as Christians, the proportion of Christians has dropped by 10 percentage points since 1990. The only religious group that has seen population increases in every state is the "nones": a category of atheists, agnostics and spiritual freelancers like Sheila that now includes 15 percent of Americans, up from 8 percent in 1990.

While these "nones" are gaining ground, Christians who label themselves as "non-denominational" or "evangelical" also are multiplying. Catholics have seen their overall numbers rise and they remain the nation's largest religious group, accounting for one in every four Americans. Meanwhile, continuing population losses in mainline Protestantism are the main cause of American Christianity's numerical decline.

So what does all of this mean for American public life? For starters, the numbers suggest that Americans increasingly are gravitating to one of two religious poles: Either they are becoming more committed to churches that make strong moral and religious demands or they are rejecting religion altogether.

That trend is not new. A 2000 Glenmary Research Center study found that America's fastest-growing congregations between 1990 and 2000 were socially conservative churches that demanded high commitment from their members, while socially liberal churches were hemorrhaging members at the fastest rate. In a culture drifting toward European-style secularism and socialism, it seems, a clearly defined faith that requires accountability to strict moral and religious norms appeals more than a culturally accommodating, anything-goes faith that is difficult to distinguish from mere Sheilaism.

The implications of this trend extend beyond religion. Just as more Americans are moving toward stronger religious observance or none at all, a related divide is widening between Americans who fear the growth of government as a threat to religious liberty and those who welcome it as a means of secular salvation.

The implications of this trend extend beyond religion. Just as more Americans are moving toward stronger religious observance or none at all, a related divide is widening between Americans who fear the growth of government as a threat to religious liberty and those who welcome it as a means of secular salvation. It's no coincidence that we are witnessing an unprecedented expansion of government at the same time that more Americans are disengaging from the faith traditions and communities that provided social, spiritual and economic support for the generations before them. Nor is it surprising that the president driving this expansion inspires religious fervor bordering on idolatry among many of his followers, particularly those with no religious affiliation. The human yearning for adoration of some higher power -- be it God, government or Barack Obama -- dies hard.

It will be interesting to see how America's economic woes reshape our religious landscape in the next decade. Some pastors and rabbis already have reported growing attendance at worship services, as more spiritual freelancers discover the virtues of a supportive faith community and the folly of investing your faith in stock options and self-actualization mantras that offer cold comfort when you're holding a pink slip. Whether more freelancers return to the fold may depend on Obama's success in fashioning a government that assumes the morally authoritative, culturally influential role that American politicians once had to share with faith communities, but now covet all for themselves.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Colleen Carroll Campbell. "A widening divide between the religious and the 'nones'." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (March 12, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Colleen Carroll Campbell.

THE AUTHOR

Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St. Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She is the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. Colleen Carroll Campbell writes for a wide variety of national publications, speaks to audiences across America, and hosts her own television show, "Faith & Culture," on EWTN, the world's largest religious media network.† Her website is here.

Copyright © 2009 Colleen Carroll Campbell




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