NEW GEOGRAPHY--Even at this season that should be about spiritual re-awakening, it is hard to deny that we live in an increasingly post-religious civilization.
Virtually everywhere in the high-income world, faith, particularly tied close to institutionalized religion, has been dropping for a decade, and the trend is accelerating with each new generation. Even once bright religious celebrations like Christmas have not only become less spiritual, even here in America, but seems to be inexorably returning to its original pagan roots as essentially a winter solstice holiday.
A simple look at the statistics collected by Pew tells the story. The Christian population in Europe is already shrinking. Between 2015 and 2060, Pew estimates the share of North American and European Christians will drop from 36 percent to barely 23 percent. Indeed in 24 of 42 traditionally Christian countries, many of them in Europe, deaths among Christians already exceeds births. Only in Africa, do Christian births seem likely to continue outnumber births.
Here in the U.S., once considered the last wealthy bastion for religion, church affiliation has been declining with each new generation; only 38 percent of younger millennials who consider faith “important in their lives,” notes Pew, compared to nearly 60 percent of boomers. Nearly half of young people predict that by 2050 the largest religious grouping will be those who are unaffiliated.
The rise of a new religion
The ebbing of religion, however, does not mean the end of a search for meaning. Among the rising tide of “nones,” or the unaffiliated, now the largest part of the Democratic Party, new forms of spiritual belief increasingly define their moral universe and world-view. Millennials and progressives may be less religious, but almost half admit to embracing a strong spiritual sense of well-being and wonder at the universe.
Now rising are new, more secular forms of religion. One faith system follows the call of “Gaia,” or Earth, a kind of neo-druidism based on an often puritanical form of earth-worship. It apostles include onetime Jesuit Jerry Brown, Bill McKibben and Al Gore, whose views are increasingly considered gospel in the media and on college campuses.
Another is a faith based on technology, an algorithmic religion if you will, which explains all behavior and sentiment as comprehensible by science. Groups like the Silicon Valley based Way of the Future seek a science-based Godhead that will lead to “trans-human” evolution. Some, including a few connected with Google, dream of achieving, through technology, the immortality so central to much of traditional religion.
The dangers of politics
Perhaps the biggest threat to religion however may be found in its politicization. The evangelical movement is clearly suffering from its adherence to the reactionary right, and support for such heinous figures as Alabama’s Roy Moore. President Trump’s election, which most evangelicals supported, reflects the cynical neutering of orthodox religious values simply to extend the influence of the political right.
Not to be outdone, the religious left — in both liberal Jewish and mainstream Christian churches — seems intent on transforming faith into a politically correct creed, with even George Washington’s own church in Alexandria disowning our first president. Groups like Faithinpubliclife.org demonstrate embrace of the progressive agenda, but are funded in large part by George Soros, probably the world’s most influential promotor of atheism. Not surprisingly, these apostles of tolerance seem to find little wrong when senators attack religious Catholics in confirmation hearings, a kind of McCarthyism of the left.
This may earn them support of the media and large parts of the political class, but turning religion into a form of progressivism has done little to slow their own demographic decline. Mainstream Protestant churches, the largest base of the religious left, have lost over 5 million adult members since 2007 and are doing even worse among millennials than other faiths. As the leadership of the reform Jewish movement becomes increasingly politicized, the demography of reform Jews is aging rapidly compared to that of more conservative factions; three quarters of all Jewish children in New York City are being raised in orthodox households.
The long game
Perhaps fertility may represent the last card for religious institutions. They remain fecund while childlessness has become rife the growing ranks of the unaffiliated, which includes a larger single population. When people in San Francisco or Manhattan, who tend to be the most secular, don’t have children, it is essentially “game over” for their genome. In contrast, religious people tend to have more children, which is why at least one analyst, Britain’s Eric Kaufman, asserts “the religious will inherit the earth,” albeit in the very long run.
But over the next few decades, religion in America and elsewhere can expect a very difficult ride. This suggests things may get harder for the millions who depend on churches in their daily lives, or for succor during disaster. Perhaps the trait the churches and synagogues need now is patience. Jews, who have waited for the messiah for a seeming eternity, or for Christians, who now have two millennia of expectations, may enjoy resurgence, but likely only after decades more of seemingly inevitable decline.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org).
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