Posts Tagged ‘religious affiliation’

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This morning as enjoyed my coffee and prepared for the day I came across an article in USA Today entitled “Young adults today are a ‘less religious’ bunch,” the subheading stated: “But not necessarily more secular!”  I mentioned this article in my Psychology of Religion class and it led to an energetic discussion.  The article compares 18 to 29-year-olds of the current generation to the four prior generations at the same age.  What you see is that the number of individuals reporting that they have no religious affiliation has consistently increased with each generation.  Only 5% of individuals born before 1928, reported being without religious affiliation when they were 18 to 29, whereas for the current group, born after 1980, that percentage jumps to 26% reporting no religious affiliation.  The article goes on to note that while they may not be as involved with church as earlier generations members of this generation are just as likely to pray and to believe in God.

I noted to my students that these results appear to fit with the growing number of individuals, who described themselves as “spiritual but not religious”.  My class discussed how to understand these results using a popular framework for analyzing religious beliefs.  This framework involves looking first at the level of generality: either a Personal Level of beliefs (e.g., individual’s belief in God, heaven and hell, sin, and the causes of our suffering, etc.) or the Social Level of beliefs (e.g., church dogma, agreed upon forms of prayer and religious rituals, etc.). The framework then involves the depth of analysis: either an analysis of Substance/Form (e.g., different names used for God, different Sacred Scriptures, different forms of prayer, etc.) or an analysis of Function (e.g., the purpose for prayer, the benefits of belonging to a church, provides guidance, creates a sense of safety and purpose).


Analysis of Religious and Spiritual Beliefs and Behaviors:

                                      Personal                            Social

Substance             Spiritual Beliefs                  Religious Beliefs 

Function            Intrapersonal Needs           Interpersonal Needs

Viewing the above table, we can see that the study results address only the Substance/Form level of analysis.  In addition, we can see that the results point to a weakening of the Social (Religious-church) dimension while the Personal (Spiritual) dimension remains intact. How can we explain these results?  I believe that if we consider the importance of the functional level of analysis we can form several hypothesis: 1) That churches are no longer meeting the Interpersonal Needs of Individuals (e.g., forming a sense of community, providing common/shared beliefs, providing moral leadership, creating a sense of renewal), so they drift away but retain their Personal Spiritual Beliefs which help to meet their Intrapersonal Needs (e.g., need for safety and security, need for guidance); 2) That individuals are no longer interested in the Interpersonal Needs and instead are overly focused on their Intrapersonal Needs.

With respect to the first hypothesis, we certainly see churches in many denominations struggling to maintain membership levels especially among young people. Some people argue that churches are losing their relevance as the quality of moral leadership displayed by church leaders implodes (e.g., sexual abuse of children, focus on hot button political or social issues that are not relevant to most people’s lives, focus on church financial needs).  Clergy that in past generations were marching at the front of rights movements now are often pitted against current minority groups and their demands. Young people who have grown accustom to homosexuality, inter-racial dating, and a “one world view” see churches taking stands on these issues that create division in their communities. Such churches work against a unified community and world!

Interesting, we see more and more churches adopting the “mega-church” model.  The idea is that people now expect that the church experience (music, sermons, and the building) should be engaging and entertaining. The church should “draw people in” with offerings like a good store sale!  We see growth in these mega-churches that offer a smorgasbord of services and experiences, one size does not fits all or “sell well” anymore!  Many churches are frantically trying to retool to better meet these needs, even to the point of announcing that “God wants you to be rich!”  I wonder how many long dead ministers and priests are turning over in their grave because of that one?   Dr. Keith Campbell, co-author of the book: The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, recently told a story about visiting his sister’s California mega-church.  She noted that they could either go into the main sanctuary and listen to the sermon, or go next door to the contemporary service with more modern music, or they could go to the church coffee shop and bookstore where they could sit and have a coffee while they watch the service on a widescreen TV.  However, these churches maybe fighting a losing battle!

How so you ask?  The second hypothesis points to the importance of the individual church member’s balance between Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Needs.  Dr. Campbell notes that on a wide variety of different indicators the current generation of individuals shows strong self-center narcissistic traits.  He notes that our social institutions (of which religion is one) are being forced to change to meet the individual demands of these young people.  Education is another social institution that is frantically trying to figure out how to advance societies needs when faced with youth who are use to multidimensional entertainment.

I recently came across a statement in the most unlikely of places, a scrap booking shows on cable!  A sales person, in talking about their product, noted: People want to be underwhelming by the requirements, and they want to be overwhelmed by the product. I suspect that many churches are embracing a marketing philosophy that holds: the less you can ask them to do and the more you can give them, the more likely they will return and stay. That thinking may continue to fuel church member’s spiritual beliefs but not necessarily their religious beliefs.

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