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Religion is Evolving Before Our Eyes

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The face of religion in the United States is changing dramatically. Formal religion is constantly evolving but every so often there is a mutation, or set of mutations, so great that a new species is formed. I believe we're at the cusp of one of those changes.

This seismic shift is not going unnoticed. Distinguished theologian Stanley Hauerwas in an article for ABC titled, "America's God is Dying" concludes with an air of doom, "Put as directly as I can, I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism, at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America, come to an end." Recently, Christian Evangelical leader Jim Wallis claimed in a CNN article that the Religious Right "is over" because they no longer are able to attract the younger generation. Michael Spencer opened a recent Christian Science Monitor article with the words, "We are on the verge -- within 10 years -- of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity."

The changes aren't just occurring in Protestant religion. The role of women and gays in ministry, the church's position on contraception and biological evolution, the modern viability of celibacy in light of scandals and a host of other questions are seem to have the Catholic Church against a wall with little room to maneuver. "Change or die" seems to be the operative phrase for religion these days.

The reasons driving the evolution are varied and complex but can be summarized, I think, in terms of three main cultural changes.

The first is overwhelming pressure from science and a broad shift toward a rationalist worldview. Atheism has always been a fringe effort in the U.S., but a series of events at the turn of the century helped birth the New Atheist movement. The effort to include intelligent design theories in science curriculum was a major wake-up call for prominent atheists as was a resurgence of religiously motivated terrorist activity in the United States and Europe. The movement has succeeded in establishing the primacy of scientific explanation -- a view formerly confined mainly to the academy -- at the cost of other explanatory models, particularly religious ones.

Things have changed so dramatically and the movement has been so successful, that a physicist of the stature of Steven Hawking felt confident enough to come out boldly and claim that the God hypothesis is no longer needed to unlock the most intractable cosmological puzzles. Hawking believes physics will unify our understanding of the universe and in case his readers miss the point, he wanders outside of his discipline and into theology to assert plainly that God can't.

The second change is coming by way of the tremendous pressure exerted on religion from the flattening of the earth. As the world shrinks, young people are exposed to -- and are easily able to interact with -- others who hold very different worldviews. Kids now have access to a wealth of information about religions other than the one in which they were raised. Brand loyalty no longer is a given when it comes to religion and that's creating a massive shift in what people accept as true about their particular faith and about faith in general.

A Pew study conducted last year earmarked some trends that support this shift. They found that, "young adults are less convinced of God's existence than their elders are today; 64 percent of young adults say they are absolutely certain of God's existence, compared with 73 percent of those ages 30 and older." The personal importance of religion (I understand this as distinct from general spirituality) is declining. "Less than half of adults under age 30 say that religion is very important in their lives (45 percent), compared with roughly six-in-10 adults 30 and older (54 percent among those ages 30-49, 59 percent among those ages 50-64 and 69 percent among those ages 65 and older)." Religion certainly is not dead, but what it means and how it's expressed is evolving.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, religion is being forced to change from the inside out due to what could crassly be called a services problem: Congregations are becoming dissatisfied with what formal religion has to offer. Believers find efforts to "modernize" shallow and patronizing. While small numbers are turning to more liturgical and morally or socially demanding faiths (opting for Mormon, traditional Catholic and even Muslim communities), many are choosing to leave institutional religion altogether, exchanging it for a more personalized faith -- or no faith at all.

The next decade will indeed be fascinating and an exciting time to observe and engage in this transformation. The metamorphosis we're experiencing not only will affect believers specifically but will have enormous social and political impact on all of us. That's an invigorating thought.

Portions of this post previously appeared on Philosophynews.com

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