Hardly a month goes by when we don't read about the decline or collapse of organized religion in America. But religion -- including the organized sort -- remains vital and vibrant, defying the predictions of doom that appear with numbing regularity.
The latest round of these discussions follows the publication of two studies showing that 20 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation when asked to state their religious preference. The number of "nones" has doubled in the last two decades.
Writing in The Huffington Post on March 20, Professor Gary Laderman of Emory University argues that religion in America will never be the same. He suggests that the dramatic increase of "nones" reflects profound changes in American society. Americans, he says, have embraced individualism and consumerism and apply this ethic to their spiritual choices; they are greatly influenced by popular culture and increasingly look to film, television and the Internet as a source of spiritual authority; and they define religion very broadly, seeing many venues other than established places of worship as arenas for sacred activities.
Laderman's conclusion is that we are now experiencing "the end of religion as we know it." He urges us to "forget churches, forget priests and pastors; forget the Bible; forget organized religion generally." The future lies in a "brave new world" of spiritual possibilities that will be increasingly unhinged from traditional religious authorities.
It is a thoughtful article, but I am not convinced. In fact, while the short-term disruption in religious patterns is undeniable, the factors that Laderman points to are more likely to push Americans into the arms of organized religion than they are to distance them from traditional institutions.
Lederman is right to talk of shifting cultural norms. Relatively speaking, we have entered an era of cultural chaos. And this is mostly a good thing; our culture is far more open, democratic and just plain interesting than it was only three decades ago, and we are more accepting and tolerant in our values.
But while individualism and market-based consumerism can be liberating, they can also be frightening. A steady flow of information can be exhilarating, but it can also be disorienting. And while social networks can connect us, they can also cut us off from face-to-face relationships. In short, the same culture that has disrupted our ties to the traditional and the predictable, often to good effect, has also undermined the bonds of solidarity on which we depend for stability, morality and trust.
When we add to the above the economic insecurities of our age, we get a sense of just how difficult things can be for the young. Some think that the problem of modern culture is "permissiveness," but I don't agree. The problem is a culture that is wonderful in many ways but devastating in others; it frees and fascinates us while heightening our loneliness and isolation.
As noted, Professor Laderman is convinced that traditional religious institutions cannot provide answers while modern culture is generating new sources of spiritual authority. But I believe that he is wrong on both counts.
In the first place, let's not exaggerate the problems of our religious institutions. Four-fifths of Americans do claim a religious affiliation; we remain, by far, the most religious of the industrialized democracies. Furthermore, according to the Pew Research Center, almost 70 percent of the unaffiliated say they believe in God. Lack of affiliation is related to many things, including the transience of the work force and the later age of marriage. But unaffiliated does not mean "without religion," and neither does it preclude religious affiliation at a later time.
Also, American congregations are remarkably strong. (Robert Putnam and David Campbell demonstrate this in their book "American Grace," and there is other evidence as well. A recent study conducted by Leadership Network in Dallas shows that megachurches are thriving in hard times.) There is a reason that American congregations have always been at the center of American religious life: Americans search out congregations because they want community, help in raising their children and a connection to the sacred. In an era of intense cultural confusion, when so much is possible and yet so little is certain, Americans need their congregations more than ever before.
In the second place, Laderman would have us believe that with the decline of traditional religious authority, spirituality and existential ideas will emerge from various expressions of popular culture. Yet the examples he provides demonstrate just how unlikely that is. Are sweat lodges really a sacred space? Is reality TV really a source of moral drama? Are sports and the Super Bowl really a generator of spiritual possibility?
Let us give the American people some credit. Sports events and reality shows are important, but they are entertainments and diversions, and no more than that. The Super Bowl is fun and a great spectacle, but not where we turn for knowledge, truth, or a sense of the sacred.
Yes, young people don't like institutions, and they are reluctant to "join" anything. They are skeptical about hierarchies and don't want a religion that is overly bureaucratic. And they question creeds -- as young people always have.
But they also crave community. In a world where we understand less and less about our own lives, they yearn for the narratives, rituals and practices that will help them make sense of what is happening around them. And most of them need God, prayer and a place that accepts them for who they are, because they can no longer make it alone.
And so Americans will do what they have always done: Church and synagogue will not be abandoned but reconfigured. Religious authority will not be discarded but rethought. And a restless, changing America will, yet again, create a synthesis between religious tradition and modernity that will reshape our religious institutions but leave them at the heart of American life.