A half-century ago, I spent several years doing fieldwork in Levittown (now Willingboro), New Jersey, then a brand new suburban community of young middle and working class families, and was surprised by the low degree of popular interest in religion. Over the years since then, there has been periodic evidence of the further waning of that interest across American society. I welcome the data and analysis being supplied by contributors to The Immanent Frame and want to add my observations, but as hypotheses for additional empirical research on the topic.
Kosmin and Keysar and others are already analyzing who has given up worship, belief, and other modes of religiosity. I am more interested in what is happening as a result to the societal and social functions of religion. Thus, I would hypothesize that an increasing number of people are finding religion irrelevant in and to their everyday lives, and to the social, cultural, and other roles they play in society. They are not only “religious nones,” but they are no longer thinking about religious matters. Consequently, I think of them as seculars.
However, there is a second group of seculars who still adhere to some religious practices and beliefs, but for whom religion is otherwise equally irrelevant. From my function-centered perspective, they are, de facto, about as non-religious as the “nones,” and have removed all but a remnant of religion from what Habermas would describe as their “lifeworlds.”
This second group of seculars uses religion in three ways. One is to meet social obligations, to satisfy familial requests, and to be seen in church or synagogue on the highest holidays. They may also send their children to Sunday school, but only so that they learn enough to choose between becoming secular or religious as adults.
Another use of religion derives from its traditional sorting function, exemplary of which are the people who continue to label themselves Episcopalian because (and as long as) that denomination still denotes high social status—even if they never have anything to do with the religion itself. Religions that are connected to ethnic identities are put to the same use, as long as ethnicity continues to be one of the country’s sorting mechanisms.
A third, and more important, use is therapeutic—a resort to religion’s traditional function as self-administered therapy. The people who continue to believe in heaven or an afterlife are convincing themselves that life will be better one day. Meanwhile, those who pray to deities in crises and situations of extreme uncertainty are indulging in a socially constructed form of self-assurance.
These uses of religion are often based on norms “inculcated by family and community,” as Christopher McKnight Nichols points out. The people who act on such norms are also described as spiritual. They are Hout and Fischer’s “unchurched believers,” but none of the uses to which they put religion conflict with becoming secular members of society.
Although the number of seculars is rising, they are nearly invisible socially. One reason is the continued visibility of religion. Religious conflict is newsworthy; as a result, fundamentalists are all over the media in excess of their numbers.
Also, many of the largest and most powerful institutions as well as commercial, public, and private organizations are invested in the continuation of religion and involved in one or another religious network. The blessings of well known but uncontroversial religious figures still add legitimacy to almost any venture.
Seculars are also invisible because they do not gather in congregations, establish institutions, or become involved, as seculars, in culturally or politically significant activities. In addition, seculars have not yet cut visibly into the cultural and political influence of organized religions, although they have helped to bring on the chronic financial pains from which most of them now suffer.
Being non-religious, the seculars are not likely to join the secularists and humanists who replace religious organizations with secular equivalents. Seculars will also distance themselves from atheists and agnostics, who are still preoccupied with the very deities whose existence they deny or question.
Perhaps the seculars’ main effect on American society and culture, at least in the foreseeable future, will be symbolic. As their number increases, cultural, political, and other marketers will take note, and some of the country’s religious symbols will begin to lose credibility and legitimacy. Laura Olson points out that Democratic politicians are already cutting back their rhetorical reliance on deities and one of these days this nation may even be removed from under its god.
However, most of the values now described as Judeo-Christian will persevere, since these are so well established and so widely institutionalized that they are now being secularized. In fact, many of these values began as non-theistic justifications for reciprocity, trust, altruism, and other social processes essential for the survival of any society. Consequently, Judeo-Christian values have been, and can continue to be, interpreted to justify everything from participation in social welfare and other helping activities to supporting unnecessary wars. Adhering to these values can even be interpreted as a secular way to be spiritual.
Nonetheless, religious philosophers and leaders can be expected to continue arguing that the purposes of life must be justified by a god. They will also insist that society’s rules and values cannot be legitimated if they are not anchored in a deity. Eventually, however, people will slowly realize that the purposes, as well as the rules, values, and practices of life about which they argue are all human constructions, that they can be grounded in secular purposes and principles, and that the arguments will continue, even if all the participants have become seculars.
If the various fundamentalist religions remain at current strength, political conflict will likely increase, since even reluctant seculars will have to join some battles in the continuing culture wars. Whether the growing number of seculars will cause a decline among the fundamentalists, or whether they will attract new adherents, remains to be seen. In any case, the fundamentalist leaders will portray the seculars as devils and use them to hold on to or mobilize their constituents. Conversely, Hout and Fischer suggest that increases in fundamentalist activity may lead to an increase in the number of seculars.
Eventually, some seculars will undoubtedly support the various organizations that press for a greater separation of church and state, and even more may get behind efforts to put an end to the tax exemptions now granted to religious institutions. The resulting political battles will last a while, but government officials who always need additional tax revenues can be predicted to side with the seculars as soon as it is politically practical.
However, most existing economic, political, and other interest groups and voting blocs will remain basically unchanged. Seculars will continue to have different class, racial, gender, and other interests, and can therefore be expected to engage in economic, political, and cultural battles with their fellow seculars. Even religious nones come with a variety of political and cultural ideologies. Consequently, seculars will also be on all sides in political struggles over the distribution of income, the allocation of public goods and the exercise of governmental power.
Predictions about a secular future for America are risky because religious revivals have occurred so often. Also, global economic problems and climatic disasters may eventually create sufficient worldwide chaos to spur global religious revivals. However, these will most likely be taking place in a world with a growing number of seculars.