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Home/Rod Dreher/Christianity Declines — But Not ‘Spirituality’

Christianity Declines — But Not ‘Spirituality’

Teenage witch shuffles her tarot deck (Teen Vogue)

Christianity continues to decline in the US, as does all organized religion. Results from the new Pew Research poll:

The secularizing shifts evident in American society so far in the 21st century show no signs of slowing. The latest Pew Research Center survey of the religious composition of the United States finds the religiously unaffiliated share of the public is 6 percentage points higher than it was five years ago and 10 points higher than a decade ago.

Christians continue to make up a majority of the U.S. populace, but their share of the adult population is 12 points lower in 2021 than it was in 2011. In addition, the share of U.S. adults who say they pray on a daily basis has been trending downward, as has the share who say religion is “very important” in their lives.

Currently, about three-in-ten U.S. adults (29%) are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. Self-identified Christians of all varieties (including Protestants, Catholics, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Orthodox Christians) make up 63% of the adult population. Christians now outnumber religious “nones” by a ratio of a little more than two-to-one. In 2007, when the Center began asking its current question about religious identity, Christians outnumbered “nones” by almost five-to-one (78% vs. 16%).

The recent declines within Christianity are concentrated among Protestants. Today, 40% of U.S. adults are Protestants, a group that is broadly defined to include nondenominational Christians and people who describe themselves as “just Christian” along with Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and members of many other denominational families. The Protestant share of the population is down 4 percentage points over the last five years and has dropped 10 points in 10 years.

By comparison, the Catholic share of the population, which had ticked downward between 2007 and 2014, has held relatively steady in recent years. As of 2021, 21% of U.S. adults describe themselves as Catholic, identical to the Catholic share of the population in 2014.

Here’s the same news, delivered in charts:


Note that the decline in Protestantism is equal between Mainliners and Evangelicals. The final chart isn’t precise, but notice that the big decline in Evangelicals does not appear to have started with Trump, but just before him, around 2015, which is thought by many to be the beginning of the Great Awokening. There’s no doubt that the Trump phenomenon accelerated it, but my sense is that something was going on in the culture just before Trump emerged. Notice too that Mainliners bottomed out around the same year.

It would be interesting to see the Catholic numbers, to determine to what extent their holding firm has to do with immigration from Latin America. Back in 2010, in Putnam and Campbell’s book American Grace, the authors’ analysis of the data showed that if you separated out Catholic migrants from Latin America, the US Catholic Church would be declining at the same rate as the Protestant Mainline. I wonder if that is still true.

Anyway, America continues to transition to its post-Christian reality. I have found that more and more, I have people coming up to me telling me that they used to think that The Benedict Option was alarmist, but over the past almost-five years since its publication in March 2017, they have come to see that its claim that America is losing its Christian faith is true. We in the churches still don’t know what to do about it. We have never before faced a crisis like this. Many believers want to console themselves by thinking that if we just double down on what we have been doing, all will be well. Many of those people, and others, think that if we can just gain political power and implement the program we want, that will turn things around. As I’ve said here before, I believe politics has to be part of any effective response, but it won’t solve the problem, or even come close. You cannot order people to believe in God. Despite what some fringe intellectual fantasists like to believe, the Grand Inquisitor Option is not a thing.

People want a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope, and that we are powerless. It does mean, though, that we are going to have to be highly creative and motivated minorities.

One of the most interesting, and unexpected, developments is that in the US, relatively few of these people who are falling away from Christianity are becoming atheists. Rather, they are cobbling together a bespoke bricolage religion, one designed just for them. QAnon is a politicized pseudo-religion. There’s all kinds of lunatic syncretism going on. Here’s a report from Vox. It begins with quotes from Evelyn Juarez, a Dallas-based TikTokker with 1.4 million followers, and a conspiratorial, Christian-ish worldview that she spreads via her channel. Excerpts:

“It just doesn’t sit right with me,” begins a TikTok by a user named Evelyn Juarez. It’s a breakdown of the tragedy at Astroworld, the Travis Scott concert in early November where eight people died and more than 300 were injured. But the video isn’t about what actually happened there. It’s about the supposed satanic symbolism of the set: “They tryna tell us something, we just keep ignoring all the signs,” reads its caption, followed by the hashtags #wakeup, #witchcraft, and #illuminati.

Juarez, a 25-year-old in Dallas, is a typical TikToker, albeit a quite popular one, with 1.4 million followers. Many of her videos reveal an interest in true crime and conspiracy theories — the Gabby Petito case, for instance, or Lil Nas X’s “devil shoes,” or the theory that multiple world governments are hiding information about Antarctica. One of her videos from November suggests that a survey sent to Texas residents about the use of electricity for critical health care could signify that “something is coming and [the state government] knows it.”

More:

The same could be said for the internet, where spiritual trends proliferate much like cultural and political ones. In fact, the latest iteration of New Thought’s founding principles is inseparable from the internet: Russo, the anthropology professor, notes that as social media has become the dominant cultural force in our society, ideologies are spreading between people who may have vastly different beliefs and backgrounds, but who show up on each other’s feeds and relate in new ways.

“It’s a mishmash of different Christian and non-Western beliefs and aesthetics, but this stuff — good and evil, prosperity — are present in all religious systems worldwide, and always have been,” he says. “Even our most fervent atheists or agnostics are still interested in morality. It’s the same idea, different packaging.”

These binaries espoused by internet spirituality — good and evil, demonic and angelic, abundance and poverty — are reinforced everywhere in culture, and not only in the context of religion. “‘The demonic’ is one of those very superficial distinctions that really has a lot to do with, ‘who’s your customer? Who are you trying to frighten?’ It can stand in the kind of generalized force of evil in a very effective way, regardless of what the specifics are,” explains Russo. “It works on people not necessarily because they’ve read the Bible, but because they watch Harry Potter or read Tolkien or play Dungeons and Dragons.”

Juarez, the popular TikToker, joined the platform during a particularly difficult period in early 2019. She was forced to drop out of college, then began suffering from depression. After that, her husband was in a bad car accident. “I needed somebody to vent to,” she says. Though she was raised in a religious household, her beliefs differ from her parents in that she feels less connected to the ideas taught by the church, and more to Jesus himself. “I’ve noticed a lot of the younger generation looking for God in a different way,” she says, “They move away from their religious background and have an actual relationship with God.”

Juarez’s TikTok comment section is proof in itself. “People have been like, ‘Yo, I can relate to this more than what I’ve been taught.’” Her approach to spirituality echoes many beliefs common in certain sects of Christianity — that occult practices shouldn’t be messed with, for instance (she doesn’t engage in manifestation because, she says, humans don’t always know what’s good for us: “I’ve dated a bunch of guys that now I know I shouldn’t have, but at the time thought they were the man of my dreams.”)

Abbie Richards is a 25-year-old disinformation researcher who creates TikToks about how conspiracy theories spread online and who regularly works with scholars to debunk and contextualize harmful myths. She’s watched how chaotic current events — the Astroworld tragedy, Covid-19, the confusing, broken job market — have driven louder conversations around spirituality from TikTokers, no matter where they fall on the ideological or political spectrum. “There’s a collective sense that the world is ending, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s the rapture, the return of Jesus, wealth inequality, Satanic worship, or whether people’s ‘vibrations are too low,’” she says. “It’s the only nonpartisan issue.”

When enormous swaths of people feel as though they have no power against evildoing, she argues, they tend to opt into narratives that provide a simple answer as to why the world is so terrifying. “With the case of Astroworld, the [organizers] didn’t do their due diligence, and they prioritized profit over the health and safety of humans. And that is a lonelier, grimmer thought to sit with than Travis Scott being a demonic villain.” It also lets us off the hook: “I totally empathize with why you would want to believe that you can fix capitalism by just wishing for money,” she says. “That’s so much easier than trying to implement taxes for the rich.”

I keep thinking of what a schoolteacher in Poland told me, in a conversation about how the youth in that country are abandoning Catholicism in huge numbers: that there is no institution there — not family, not church, not the state, nothing — that is more influential in shaping the worldview of the youth than TikTok and other forms of social media.

Like I said, we have never faced a crisis like this. Virtually overnight, a global mode of communication has come into being, one that is radically democratic, in the sense that anybody can say virtually anything, and the system has no way of privileging one voice over any other. I hope you will read this powerful 2016 essay by the Evangelical Anglican theologian Alastair Roberts, who talks about the collapse of unified religious authority in the Internet age. He published this at the beginning of the Trump era, and it holds up exceptionally well. Excerpts:

People’s hunger for truth is easily mistaken for a pure rational desire for accuracy and certitude. Yet our hunger for truth is, at a deeper level, our desperate need for something or, more typically, someone to trust. Where radical distrust in the ordinary organs of knowledge and thought in society prevails, most don’t cut themselves off from everyone else in unrelenting suspicion. Rather, in such situations we typically see a dangerous expansion of credulity, of unattached trust, just waiting for something to latch onto, for someone or something—anything!—to believe in. Alongside this expansion of credulity, we also see a shrinking of the circle of trust. Hence, wild and fanciful conspiracy theories gain traction, and new dissident and tribal communities form around them.

More:

The Internet has occasioned a dramatic diversification and expansion of our sources of information, while decreasing the power of traditional gatekeepers. We are surrounded by a bewildering excess of information of dubious quality, but the social processes by which we would formerly have dealt with such information, distilling meaning from it, have been weakened. Information is no longer largely pre-digested, pre-selected, and tested for us by the work of responsible gatekeepers, who help us to make sense of it. We are now deluged in senseless information and faced with armies of competing gatekeepers, producing a sense of disorientation and anxiety.

Where we are overwhelmed by senseless information, it is unsurprising that we will often retreat to the reassuring, yet highly partisan, echo chambers of social media, where we can find clear signals that pierce through the white noise of information that faces us online. Information is increasingly socially mediated in the current Internet: our social networks are the nets of trust with which we trawl the vast oceans of information online. As trust in traditional gatekeepers and authorities has weakened, we increasingly place our trust in less hierarchical social groups and filter our information through them.

None of this is new, exactly. What’s gripping is the effect this is having on religion. Here is why it is very hard to take institutional pronouncements seriously, given that some of our institutions have become sophisticated left-wing versions of what they decry on the Right:

This populism is encouraged, not only by the lack of structural and institutional differences between voices online, but also by various breaches that have been created between people and traditional gatekeepers, breaches that make it increasingly difficult to see them as being for and with us. These breaches take many different forms. The breach between cosmopolitans and provincials is one such breach: more than just a difference in wealth, this is a deep and fundamental difference in identity, values, and loyalties. The breach between locals and experts is another breach: the sort of abstract knowledge of experts has been valued over local, particular, and situated knowledge. There is a geographical breach in the US between the ‘coastal elites’ and the people in ‘flyover country’. The growing racial, religious, and cultural diversity of the country introduces further breaches. The collapse of mediating institutions between those in power and the rest of the population, such as the mainline Protestant churches is another breach. Alongside these breaches has occurred a far more fundamental breach in affection, resulting in mistrust and often antipathy.

The quality controls of the institutions that we once trusted have also become suspect. The university, for instance, is increasingly regarded as a highly politicized and tribal institution, to the point of excluding challenging, though rigorously formed, views from the conversation. Critical theory and various ‘studies’ courses are associated with an extreme hermeneutic of suspicion and various notions (e.g. the ‘Patriarchy’) that often function much like conspiracy theories, while holding considerable authority and being immune from most direct challenge. The extreme confirmation bias, closure to opposing or questioning voices, political partisanship, shutting down of debate, enforcement of politically correct codes of speech, action, and even thought, and the seeming detachment from reality on issues such as sexual difference have all profoundly harmed the credibility of the university as a public and open institution in the eyes of many.

Here is the core point:

The egalitarian online environment also makes it difficult to discern the difference between those who hold ordained pastoral office and responsibility and people who are simply self-appointed online ‘influencers’ (in case you need a reminder, I am just a blogger: I am not your pastor). It makes it difficult to discern the difference between trained and orthodox theologians and untrained people who are simply regurgitating error. Everyone appears to be a peer online, which dulls our awareness of the fact that some people have authority over us and others have other forms of authority resulting from privileged knowledge, training, or experience. Everyone is expected to make up their own opinion in such a world, but very few people have the means to make up their minds well.

Read it all — it’s important. 

Roberts goes on to say that the future of Evangelicalism will be determined not by official institutional authorities, but by the networks of trust, including online influencers. He does not think that is a good thing, but he believes (as do I) that this is a massive challenge for the churches. This phenomenon is moving so fast that we are blowing right past the idea of people finding a niche within Christianity, to people leaving Christianity altogether for a do-it-yourself spirituality.

To be sure, this didn’t happen overnight. A generation ago, the influential religion scholar Robert Bellah was writing about “Sheila-ism,” his term for people who believe that it was fine for people to come to their own ideas about religious truth, picking and choosing from various traditions to find something that “works” for them. With the advent of the Internet, this degenerative process has been strapped to a rocketship.

As Alastair Roberts observes in that essay and in other ones, this is not wholly a bad thing. Some authority figures and institutions were coasting on their reputations, and did not deserve the deference they received. The problem, though, is that nobody can live without some authority. In the absence of traditional authorities, they will seek out authorities of their own — which inevitably devolves down to themselves.

Which is how we get TikTok religions. This is not a genie that will be put back into a bottle. Somehow, the churches will have to navigate through this period of massive disintegration, including epistemic disintegration. The idea that the mere assertion of religious authority, especially reinforced by government fiat, can bring us out of this crisis is naive. This crisis accelerated spectacularly in the generation raised on the Internet, but it this process began long, long ago.

I am wondering today how all this should affect my new book project, on restoring Christian “enchantment” to the world. If I were dealing only with materialists, that would make the task straightforward. But I am also dealing with people — and in fact, am primarily dealing with people — who are open to the concept of enchantment, but are completely undiscriminating. Plus, they live and move and have their being in a popular culture that condemns Christian tradition and extols counter-Christian ones. I was in a Barnes & Noble the other day, and was shocked to see a big shelf full of tarot cards and all kinds of other occult things geared towards teenagers and young adults. These people want enchantment, just not the Christian version.

Well, my belief is that very few Americans, especially young Americans, understand how profoundly mystical traditional, pre-modern Christianity is. Western theology of the past five or six centuries has slowly been scrubbing the tradition free of the wonder that is intrinsic to it. But the desire for enchantment, and the power of Christianity to enchant, hasn’t gone away. What I hope to do with this book is to awaken readers — lukewarm Christians, as well as young people who think they have figured out that Christianity is dull and moralistic — to these concealed truths about the Christian faith. I want them to know that what many of them go searching for in false religions, or even in the dangerous world of the occult, exists in Christianity, though you have to look for it. Ultimately this book will be about metaphysics, but it is mostly going to tell stories of the inbreaking of the numinous, of God and the heavenly host, into the material world in unusual ways.

The question is, are we capable of receiving these signs? Or do we resist them because they direct us to a place we don’t want to go?

Once again, the Pew numbers are today what they have been for a couple of decades, at least: a five-alarm wake-up call to the Christian churches. I have stayed pretty much on top of this stuff for thirty years, and even I am surprised by some things. I struggle to see the world as my own children do, meaning that I am starting to try to understand how it looks to them to be in a world where they cannot count on many of the things I took for granted, regarding religious authority and stability. Even though it was all falling apart from my youth, it was not like this.

Happy-clappy youth group spirituality is going to evaporate in the crosswinds of this post-Christian culture. So will a Christianity politicized to the Left or the Right. So will Middle-Class-At-Prayer Christianity. So will a Christianity that understands itself primarily as following the moral law. We are beginning to reap the harvest of having encouraged two generations of young Americans to embrace spiritual emotivism.

 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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