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Saying ‘no’ to your parents’ religion, or to all religion as currently defined, does not necessarily mean saying ‘no’ to faith and/or to God. And woe to those who make that assumption, no matter how many statistics they use to prove their point. Statistics, a teacher of mine at the University of Chicago used to say, are used most often the way a drunk uses a lamppost, more for support than for illumination.
Nowhere is that more true than when demographers, sociologists and statisticians use simple, rigid categories to describe something as complex and nuanced as spiritual identity. That’s why we should beware sweeping conclusions like the ones in headlines which suggest that faith is vanishing in America. Are they kidding?
If the new American Religious Identity Survey study tells us anything at all, it is that the categories by which people measure and define their own faith are shifting, but that is hardly something new. The personalized, even idiosyncratic nature of faith in our culture has been a growing trend for a very long time.
We may look back to 24 years to Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, which studied individualism and commitment in American life, or the emergence of the radically democratic American Pentecostalism which grew from a Los Angeles stable 100 years before that, or even the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock.
The bottom line is that we have always been a culture that rejected the spiritual status quo. But we have not ever been, and are not now, a culture that rejects faith. We just want in on our own terms — that is the American spiritual tradition. The American Religious Identity Survey actually confirms that. For people invested in status quo categories, whether out of academic or theological necessity, that may be upsetting, but it need not be for the rest of us.
The results of the American Religious Identity Survey suggest that we live in a time of incredible spiritual ferment, one in which personal freedom and individual dignity are celebrated more than ever. The last time I checked, those were pretty good values to celebrate. The survey also raises important questions about the state of faith in our nation, and failing to ask them would be as mistaken as the ‘death of religion’ conclusion to which others have jumped.
In light of this survey, we need to ask ourselves three basic questions. First, how do people, whatever faith they follow (including no faith at all) maintain their sense of obligation to the welfare of others when personal freedom defines their identity? Without that kind of commitment, forget religion, the whole world is in trouble. How do we assure that a celebration of personal freedom is not simply cover for a culture of narcissism and selfishness?
Second, how do those of us who still feel deeply rooted in a particular tradition take advantage of this moment not to make converts, or to beef up our numbers, but to serve all people (most of whom will never sit in our pews or pay our dues) who might benefit from some of the wisdom contained within the traditions we follow? How do we use this moment in American life to become increasingly sensitive to the difference between religion as we happen to understand it and faith/belief/spiritual connection which, if they are really real, must be bigger than our particular doctrine or tradition?
Finally, are those of us who still claim attachment to a religious community or institution going to ask ourselves the tough questions raised by this survey about the credibility which religion has lost in recent decades? With violence in the name of religion on the rise, extremists becoming increasingly powerful in every segment of religious life, and the ever-more polarizing language used by ideologues ranging from absolutist atheists to radical religionists, this is not someone else’s problem. If the use of traditional religious labels is on the decline, those who remain comfortable with those labels must ask ourselves what we have done to “degrade our own brand” and even more importantly, what we must do to fix it.