Good What’s Going On?: The Decline Of Religious Observance In Christian Churches Creative Writing Example
For thousands of years, religion has been embedded into the fabric of the human experience. Whether it was the creation myths of the Sumerians, King Hammurabi thanking the gods for granting wisdom, Ancient Egyptians building pyramids for the afterlife, or the relatively more innocuous addition of “In God We Trust” on coins, religious life has had a way of imprinting itself into whatever culture it finds itself in. In western culture, and more particularly in the United States, no religion has had the same impact as Christianity. According to a poll from Gallup.com, a full 77% of Americans identified as Christian in 2012 (Newport). Meanwhile, another Gallup.com poll stated in 2013 that four out of every ten Americans reported attending services within the last seven days and also went on to state that the numbers hadn’t changed significantly over the past few decades ("In U.S., Four in 10 Report Attending Church in Last Week"). By those measures it would seem that religious observance, at least in Christian circles, should be as “hale and hearty as ever” in America. Interestingly enough, additional data paints a very different picture. For instance, the Pew Research Center’s numbers say that number of people whose described their church attendance at “Seldom” or “Never” had increased from 25% to 29% over the same time period (Lipka). Lest anyone conclude that these number are an anomaly, it’s been said that the people attending services each week may number at less than 22% (Hardaway and Marler 307). With a social institution like organized Christianity, the reasons for such a steep drop-off are as complex as the people involved in this drama. There likely is no single cause that accounts for everything. That being said, a few general causes contributing to this decline in Christian religious observance can be identified as a lack of belief, a decline in the church’s social influence, the loss of young people, and the failure of the church to provide the experience that people of faith are searching for in the present.
1. Lack of Belief in God
The first and most obvious explanation for why Christian churches are losing regular attenders by the percentage point is a simple lack of belief. In “Nones on the Rise”, Pew Research found that Atheism had risen from 1.6% to 2.4% and that similarly, those identifying as Agnostic swelled their ranks from 2.1% to 3.3% from 2007 to 2012 (“Nones” on the Rise"). Since Christianity is a religious system that makes claims about the afterlife, a personal God, and the supernatural in general, it’s only logical to expect an increase in disbelief to correspond with a decrease in attendance. Even if this explanation is accepted, however, it still doesn’t entirely explain what can only be described as a mass-exodus from the Christian church. Interestingly enough, in an article entitled “How the Internet is Taking Away America’s Religion”, the MIT Technology Review noted the relationship between Atheism and the increasing prevalence of the Internet in modern times ("How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion"). The emergence of online communities has garnered notice over the years. Social media sites like Tumblr and Twitter as well as the prevalence of Facebook groups and forums based on shared common interest have been noted for their ability to facilitate the development of community in places where the opportunity wouldn’t have been there before. Strength in numbers isn’t just a pithy saying in this instance.
While the Internet could certainly account for at least one of the reasons why unbelief has been on the rise in recent times, one problem with extrapolating this as an explanation for low church attendance is the “constant movement” that Pew Research noted in its findings ("Report 1: Religious Affiliation"). Even if this level of evident restlessness and discontent is perhaps partially explained by former Christians converting to Atheism and Agnosticism, it’s hard to believe that all of these former churchgoers have simply stopped believing in God. In fact, it’s said that 68% of the unaffiliated individuals have retained belief in a higher power if Pew is to be believed (“Nones” on the Rise"). However, the rise in atheism and the corresponding decrease in religious observance makes it fair to say that the rise of disbelief in God and the ability of atheists and agnostics to organize has been a contributing factor to the decline of church attendance in America.
2. Declining Social Influence of Christianity
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines power as “the ability to act or produce an effect”. A brief review of history will demonstrate how the Christian church was more than just a building where people’s daily lives were concerned. As was explained in Albert Pleysier’s “Henry the VIII and the Anabaptists”, “King Henry was bringing to an end the pope’s authority in England. The break from Rome stemmed from the king’s desire to end his marriage with Catharine of Aragon” (37). In many respects, this sentence doesn’t do full justice to the hold the Christian church had on England at that time. That the only way to erode the pope’s power was for the king to create his own church speaks volumes. Constantine, as detailed by countless history books, including the book jacket of “Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor”, is largely credited as the man who gave Christianity legitimacy by ending the persecution of Christians and making Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire (Stephenson). In short, the church as a social institution has wielded real political power throughout the ages. That power was sometimes used for good, and in many cases was used to persecute other groups through infamous events like the Inquisition and the Crusades.
In the United States, despite the founding fathers and their stated intention to keep the church and state separate, Christianity regained its status as dominant religion. In the year 2015, it’s safe to say that the church doesn’t hold people’s lives in the balance like it once did. The Christian church, despite declarations to the contrary, is discovering that it’s no longer the only voice on moral and social issues. This was established most recently in the push to legalize same-sex marriage although religious resistance to various social movements was a theme in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and in the struggle for Civil Rights as well.
It could be effectively argued that the rise of the Religious Right and the Religious Right’s political voting bloc in presidential elections is still a form of social influence and that would be correct. Similarly, the Hartford Institute of Religion Research has found that in 2011 megachurches were growing at a steady rate of roughly 8% per year (Bird and Thumma). All of this could be interpreted as yet another sign that Christianity still has influence by numbers.
Although it’s certainly true that Christianity does maintain a large amount of influence within the population, the fact still remains that the Religious Right was unable to sway the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections on its own. On that note, Pew Research discovered that both those who are religiously affiliated and those who are unaffiliated were in agreement concerning Christianity’s waning influence even if there was dispute about whether this decline should be taken as a positive or negative development ("Religion and the Unaffiliated").
For many non-believers or other groups who may have attended church on pain of being ostracized, the Christian church’s lessened ability to compel people into observing services may also be contributing to the lower attendance rates.
3. Newer Generations Having a Different Outlook Towards Reality and Organized Religion
Another reason why the Christian church may be struggling with weekly attendance is the increasingly prevalent reality that younger generations are less inclined to follow along with religious dogma than their older counterparts. USA Today published an interesting article that was aptly entitled “72% of Millennials Say They’re More Spiritual Than Religious” (Grossman). If that wasn’t convincing enough, in a Gallup.com poll that had 42% of Americans denying Evolution, the 18-29 age group boasted a low of 28% affirming a Young Earth Creationist view of earth’s beginning ("In U.S., 42% Believe Creationist View of Human Origins"). These facts would appear to point very firmly towards the conclusion that younger people are more reluctant to allow organized religion to shape their perceptions of reality to the same extent as previous generations. This is borne out again by the results of the 2012 American Religious Identification Survey, which shows Generation X increasingly distancing itself from Christianity as they’ve grown older with 85% identifying with Christianity in 1990 and 75% doing so in 2008. Even more telling, in 1990, 13% of Generation X members didn’t align themselves with any religion. In 2008, however, that number shot up to 21% (Kosmin et al.).
What’s interesting about this state of affairs is that despite what should be a decisive shift towards secularization, millennials in particular can’t entirely be separated from religious belief with Pew Research finding that millennials share many traditional religious beliefs while nonetheless disavowing affiliation with Christian denominations. The pollsters attempt to reconcile this as a matter of younger people being less likely to stress their religious affiliations. Although this may partially explain the willingness of younger people to spend their weekends away from church, it still doesn’t fully account for the millennials and their embrace of scientific concepts like Evolution. With Pew research showing a full 10% of Nones searching for a religion that fits them, however, it could be that there’s a clash between the church’s generally older generation sense of social values and the inquisitiveness of the younger groups like Generation X and the Millennials ("Religion and the Unaffiliated").
4. Church Not Offering the Experience People are Looking For
Yet another cause for reduced church attendance that can be drawn from the data is the simple fact that the church isn’t providing the experience that people want to see. In some ways this is perhaps the cause that best encompasses all the other factors, but this all becomes especially noticeable because of the Pew finding that both affiliated and non-affiliated religious Americans strongly disliked certain aspects of the religion itself. For the unaffiliated, physical hardship accounted for 15% of non-attendance while 17% merely had church attendance as a low priority. Far and away, the largest motivation for not going to church was dislike of certain aspects of the religion with 59% citing perceived flaws with the focus of the organized church as their reason for not attending.” ("Religion and the Unaffiliated"). This is especially glaring in light of the fact that Pew discovered that “less religious” didn’t necessarily translate to “increasing secularity” (qtd. in Grossman "Young adults 'less religious,' not necessarily 'more secular'").
Of course, it could be argued that the rise in non-religion and atheism is a sign in itself that the church wouldn’t be able to make amends. According to a Barna Study called “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church”, roughly one in every ten millennials feels like church isn’t a place where they can voice their deepest doubts.”("Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church").
In addition, unchurched believers, as explained by both the polls and Joseph O’Brian Baker and Buster Smith, are different from atheists or agnostics despite their similar behaviors (Baker and Smith). Yet in spite of the Barna study’s note that young people are increasingly lonely and seeking connection over dogmatism, the fact remains that they and other unaffiliated spiritual but not religious sorts are no longer turning to churches for their needs. ("Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church").
Although it’d certainly be difficult to pin a single cause to the decline of church attendance, the rise of atheism, the church’s loss of social power, the clash of generational perspectives, and the lack of resonance in the current church experience are all contributing factors. In light of the previously noted traditional spiritual beliefs of many younger people and the common ground of belief in a higher deity that pervades much of American thinking on the spiritual, the staggering losses suffered by churches are a puzzle. For anyone who has paid attention to American history, it’s hard to believe that people have disengaged from church activity so rapidly. The truth is that the church’s size, age, and tumultuous relationship with secularism demands a complex, multi-faceted answer. As for whether these developments mean that society is done with religion for good, it should be noted that Christianity has undergone ups and downs throughout the centuries. A religion with that type of propensity for reinventing itself can never be completely counted out.
Baker, Joseph O'brian, and Buster Smith. "None Too Simple: Examining Issues of Religious Nonbelief and Nonbelonging in the United States." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2009): 719-33. Print.
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Grossman, Cathy Lynn. "Young Adults 'less Religious,' Not Necessarily 'more Secular'"USA Today 16 Feb. 2010, Faith & Reason sec. USA Today. Web. 16 Mar. 2015. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-02-17-pewyouth17_ST_N.htm>.
Grossman, Cathy Lynn. "Survey: 72% of Millennials 'more Spiritual than Religious'"USA Today 27 Apr. 2010, Faith & Reason sec. USA Today. Web. 16 Mar. 2015. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-04-27-1Amillfaith27_ST_N.htm>.
Hadaway, C. Kirk, and Penny Long Marler. "How Many Americans Attend Worship Each Week? An Alternative Approach to Measurement." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44.3 (2005): 307-22. Print.
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