From The Atlantic comes this interesting and sobering effort to unpack what has happened over the last 30 years, citing research by Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame. Author Derek Thompson pinpoints three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11. (The article is from 2019, in the waning days of pre-COVID America. I can only imagine that events of the last three years have exacerbated many of the problems described here.)
Religion has lost its halo effect in the past three decades, not because science drove God from the public square, but rather because politics did. In the 21st century, “not religious” has become a specific American identity—one that distinguishes secular, liberal whites from the conservative, evangelical right.
Other social forces, which have little to do with geopolitics or partisanship, have played a key role in the rise of the nones.
The Church is just one of many social institutions—including banks, Congress, and the police—that have lost public trust in an age of elite failure. But scandals in the Catholic Church have accelerated its particularly rapid loss of moral stature. According to Pew research, 13 percent of Americans today self-identify as “former Catholics,” and many of them leave organized religion altogether. And as the ranks of the nones have swelled, it’s become more socially acceptable for casual or rare churchgoers to tell pollsters that they don’t particularly identify with any faith. It’s also become easier for nones to meet, marry, and raise children who grow up without any real religious attachment.
Nor does Smith rule out the familiar antagonists of capitalism and the internet in explaining the popularity of non-affiliation. “The former has made life more precarious, and the latter has made it easier for anxious individuals to build their own spiritualities from ideas and practices they find online,” he said, such as Buddhist meditation guides and atheist Reddit boards…
… Finally, the phenomenon of “delayed adulthood” might be another subtle contributor… By the time they settle down, [these Americans] have established a routine—work, brunch, gym, date, drink, football—that leaves little room for weekly Mass. “They know who they are by 30, and they don’t feel like they need a church to tell them,” Smith said.
He notes a number of other trends at work in all this — it’s a complicated and nuanced phenomenon — and concludes by noting:
Religion is more than a theism. It is a bundle: a theory of the world, a community, a social identity, a means of finding peace and purpose, and a weekly routine. Those, like me, who have largely rejected this package deal, often find themselves shopping à la carte for meaning, community, and routine to fill a faith-shaped void. Their politics is a religion. Their work is a religion. Their spin class is a church. And not looking at their phone for several consecutive hours is a Sabbath.