Back in the sixties, the American sociologist Peter Berger proposed the Secularization Hypothesis – a fancy term for the theory that as cultures become more modern, they will move out from under the umbrella of religion. This change could be seen in a number of ways. It could show up as a declining importance of religion in organizations; think about hospitals, many of which still bear religious names, but not much else religious. Or secularization could show up as fewer and fewer people professing belief or affiliation.
Berger recanted his theory and now argues that development leads to a diversity of religions, but the secularization debate continues. And the debate persists for a good reason – it’s really difficult to gain a clear picture of how religion is changing among individuals, communities, and cultures. Over the next few weeks I’m going to review some of the research that tries to follow religious change.
How do we categorize someone’s religiosity? It seems easy enough when people choose their affiliation, but even that category can contain many different types of spirituality: not all Methodists are the same. This complexity gets even trickier when it comes to categorizing the large group of people who are not affiliated. The “nones” (a moniker for those who answer “unaffiliated” on survey questions about their religion) encompass everyone from atheists to agnostics to the simply uninterested. And of course, each of these groups contains an even wider array of personalities. The complexity is staggering and poses a difficult challenge to anyone studying religion.
On a more basic level, it’s quite difficult to even distinguish between spirituality and religiosity. In everyday conversation, people readily make this distinction by identifying as “spiritual but not religious,” but new research by Boston University sociologist Nancy Ammerman shows just how blurry the distinction actually is.
How does our morality affect our religious beliefs? Perhaps more appropriately: how do our religious beliefs affect our morality? Or do both emerge from something else, like personality? The boundaries and relationships between these different aspects of who we are are very fuzzy. We can’t just point to some behavior and call it exclusively moral, or religious, or just their personality. But while the problem is deeply complex, an abundance of data (some of it collected here) is bringing certain trends into the foreground.