Monday, March 18, 2013

Are the Rising Number of "No Religion" a Sign of the World Getting Better?

Those who answer "none" to survey questions asking "what religion do you consider yourself to be?" have been rising.  They are about 15% of all U.S. adults, and in the 20-something percentages for young adults.  In Europe and other developed countries, the percentages are higher.

The proportion of religious "nones" roughly correlates with how well-ordered a society is.  In that way, the growth of religious nones might be taken as a proxy of increasing social order.

I am not arguing that irreligion makes society better, or that religious nones are happier. They aren't.

On the contrary, I am a Presbyterian elder and a pretty traditional Calvinist.

Rather, people who say they have no religion often do not mean that they are atheists.  They haven't rejected God or a spirit-infused way of thinking about the world.  They just don't take part in an institution that requires them to think about God or a divine order.  And because none of their institutions require it, most of them just don't think about religion in their daily lives - until some survey comes along and asks.

I do think that a well-ordered society makes it easier to believe that we can make a decent society ourselves, without thinking much about God. 

Yet it is also the case the the people who live within religious institutions and find their work in the world to be meaningful because it accords with a divine order are more likely to do the very things that make a well-ordered society well ordered. They are more likely to be helpful, and to be happy because they are helpful.  They are more likely to think their lives are meaningful because they help make good order for everyone. 

Especially for young people who still believe that their well-ordered world just is, rather than being something that good people make.


Marc Bentley said...

How do you feel you are Calvinistic? I'm curious because we've discussed Calvinism in detail in my Religion in Appalachia class.

Kip said...

Interesting analysis, but when you write that "the proportion of religious 'nones' roughly correlates with how well-ordered a society is," aren't you assuming religion is something on the order of the "heart of a heartless world?"

I tend to see it as a mechanism of social control with the happy potential to backfire occasionally and deliver social critique. From that perspective, we would expect to see religion delivering status quo messages most of the time. A rise in "nones" -- or a rise in radical religion such as we saw in the 1960s -- would suggest a deteriorating social order.


gruntled said...

Kip: I think religious institutions normally function for most members most of the time as social groups in which they can support each other in believing that the world is meaningful, and do good things for the world.

Many people, especially young healthy ones with few bad experiences, do not participate in religious institutions, because they believe they are in control of their lives.

Actually, I do not think of religious institutions as the heart of a heartless world - on the contrary, I think they are the strongest institutions, after the family, for encouraging the idea that the world is not heartless, but amenable to our efforts at improvement.

gruntled said...

Mark: Your question is a long one. My theological ontology is a pretty traditional one for Presbyterians. If you would like a longer answer, prompt me with a more specific question.

Marc Bentley said...

I guess topics like universal vs. particular salvation, perseverance of the saints, total depravity, and Arminianism. From what I've read of "pure" Calvinism through my readings in Religion in Appalachia, those are key words.

gruntled said...

TULIP Calvinism is a later, more scholastic development. Of the TULIP elements, "Perseverance of the Saints" is the one I understand the best and see the most. I think "total depravity,""unconditional election," and "irresistability of grace" are comforting doctrines, because they take away the illusion that we could be perfect if we just tried harder.

As for atonement, limited or otherwise, I have concluded that any doctrine of salvation is beyond my understanding.

Marc Bentley said...

Interesting. Thanks for sharing!