Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Losing our religion

Everyone's talking about this Trinity College poll showing that fewer Americans say they're Christian.

The Washington Post reports it like this:

15 Percent of Americans Have No ReligionFewer Call Themselves Christians; Nondenominational Identification Increases

The percentage of Americans who call themselves Christians has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, and those who do are increasingly identifying themselves without traditional denomination labels....
But I don't think those are the most important results from this poll.

It's hard to get at people's true thoughts and feelings by asking them to put a label on themselves, because you dredge up all the connotations surrounding the labels in addition to the literal meaning. There are plenty of atheists, for instance, who don't want to go around proclaiming, "I'm an atheist," because that's just not polite. And this can cut both ways: I have a couple friends who deeply believe in Christianity and call themselves "Christians," but will refer to themselves as "not religious" or even opposed to "religion." For them, "religion" means human-made institutions that distort and distract from the founding principles of Christianity.

The answers to these questions are more revealing, because they're about real life rather than labels:
Were you married in a religious ceremony? (ever married respondents only)

When you die, do you expect to have a religious funeral or service?
The answers were 69% "yes" vs. 30% "no" for weddings, and 66% "yes" vs. 27% "no" for funerals (with a few percent not answering). So that's roughly a 70-30 split for both questions. (Here's a PDF of the complete results.)

I'm surprised at how secular we've turned out to be. I would have expected those numbers maybe in Europe; I would have thought the percentage of secular weddings or funerals here in America would be more like 10%. Even to me, the idea of having a wedding or funeral without the trappings of religion feels ruthlessly antisocial.

There seems to be a strong notion (though maybe not as strong as I thought) that even if you aren't particularly religious, you should still publicly go through the motions to be nice. If you're, say, getting married, well, "families" are going to "expect" it.

People sometimes talk about "family" as if it's this dictatorial entity controlling your life. But if you're over 18, unless you're bound by some specific debt or contractual condition to a family member, you're allowed to do what you want.

The other day I blogged about Twitter and said I was enjoying the "all-caps micro-wisdom" of Jenny Holzer. One of her posts that stood out:



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