The religious landscape in America is changing dramatically. I’ve written on this before, but the results remain surprising: over the past decade, the number of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated has doubled- rising from 8% in 2003 to 21% today. Something is happening in the tides of public opinion on religion… but what is happening remains open for debate. Why are these numbers rising so quickly?
A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-profit doing research on religion in American public life, has been tracking how opinions on same-sex marriage have impacted people’s religious affiliation. From this survey it’d seem that same-sex marriage was a deciding factor for many people’s choice to leave their childhood religion. But, as always, the relationship isn’t so cut and dry.
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.