But why, first of all, is this subject a significant one? And why does it appear especially pertinent at precisely the present moment? To begin with, growing numbers of “religious nones,” that is, people who have limited or no religious affiliation yet still claim to believe in some kind of divinity, signal an unprecedented shift in the American religious landscape, and many scholars who have sought to understand this phenomenon have indicated that something like “spirituality” might capture an important aspect of their outlook, if not their “identity.” We, for our part, certainly agree that this is a socially significant shift. Yet we also note that much of the interpretation and ensuing discussion about the “religious nones” draws upon and continues to assert uninvestigated understandings of religion and spirituality, where we would argue that the shifts underway should elicit some reconsideration of the terms that are deployed to analyze and interpret this allegedly “new” phenomenon.
The politics of spirituality
Debates regarding health care have struck at the core of social and political imaginaries of what it means for both bodies and societies to thrive. As Obama’s health care reforms pointedly demonstrated, debate in North America about the respective roles of government and private interests in the administration of health care has been a catalyst of enthusiastic civic engagement, with different results on either side of the Canadian-American border. While much of this civic engagement rests upon a shared assumption that biomedical health care, based on Western scientific method, is the best kind of care for suffering bodies, the politics of health care is also shaped by a spiritual politics, divided along several axes.
Perceptions of the environment, however intensively managed that environment may in fact be, turn into experiences of nature, self, and god. The political dimension of such experience is largely unspoken. But in its particular embodied characteristics, such experience is structurally dependent on a certain exercise of state power. In this way the politics of spirituality may have little to do with thoughts about elections or particular government officials. But it has much to do with creating a space for significant governmental presence in both personal and collective life.
Who are the Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious”? What unifying characteristics, qualities, and beliefs might they share? And to what extent might their distinctive approach to religion, or to systems of meaning, have relevance to political discourse, electoral campaigns, and public policy? As many other contributors to this blog have noted, these questions elude easy answers, because defining spirituality is, as Courtney Bender aptly puts it in her brilliant book The New Metaphysicals, “like shoveling fog.” Nevertheless, perhaps we can obtain just a slight bit of traction by investigating some of the characteristics shared by SBNR Americans.
Religion and the sex scandal are still closely linked, though the targets of public outrage have morphed: it is often religious authorities and bearers of traditional morality whose sexual desires and actions are publicized and condemned. With so many religious institutions and their authorities rocked by sex scandals in a litany of abuse and victimhood, it behooves us to ask what, precisely, is being exposed and denounced, and, conversely, what is being protected and perhaps even obscured. What aspects of “religion” are under fire in these scandals? What role does “spirituality” play in this discursive reconfiguration of sexuality and religion?
My contribution to these discussions seeks to expand the analytical horizon of the foregoing discussion of civil religion both chronologically and geographically, with special attention to the growing importance of what I call “dark green religion,” and the possibility that it might precipitate the emergence of a global, civil earth religion. Dark green religion, as I have constructed the term, involves the perception that nature is sacred and has intrinsic value, the belief that everything is interconnected and mutually dependent, and a deep feeling of belonging to nature. Often rooted in an evolutionary understanding that all life shares a common ancestor, dark green religion generally leads to a form of kinship ethics that entails ethical responsibilities to all living things.
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.
The furious debate in some quarters over whether America was born a “Christian nation” is ironic. The historical record shows that America was not born Christian, but grew to be very Christian centuries later. Some Religious Right activists believe that were it to be accepted as a fact that pre-1800 Americans were deeply Christian, a new light would be cast on current debates about where (if anywhere) to draw a line between Church and State today. In the sense of the Supreme Court’s search for “originalist” interpretations of the Constitution, Christian dogma would be an originalist justification for, say, reintroducing prayer into schools. But the story of Early American religion is, in fact, a quite different one.
In 2008, roughly 15 percent of Americans told telephone surveyors with the American Religious Identification Survey that they had no religious preference, were atheist, agnostic, secular, or humanist….Whether or not we want to feed these findings back into a very long-running debate about sociology’s secularization thesis, many of us will feel compelled to ask what this trend means for American public life. We are trained to ask the question because we are so used to thinking in Tocquevillian terms about religion’s relation to democracy. For that reason alone, it is worth taking a little time to clarify what the oft-quoted French traveler, diarist and social thinker Alexis de Tocqueville actually did say about American religion and its public consequences, so we can better decide what, if anything, in the Tocquevillian heritage helps us grapple with these findings.
In his 2008 documentary (some might prefer to call it a mockumentary) Religulous, comedian and satirist Bill Maher wonders aloud why religiously unaffiliated Americans are not politically mobilized. Indeed, he issues something of a call to arms to this sector of the American population: “Anti-religionists must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves.” Although neither Religulous nor Maher’s views on religion in general necessarily reflect mainstream American attitudes, the question the film raises about why the religiously unaffiliated are not politically mobilized is well worth exploring.
Today, contemporary voluntary religion entails a “common-sense” epistemology that in some ways is strangely unaware of its own limits. Today’s widespread deference to a liberal voluntarism is so radically “open,” for example, that it can lead to intransigence, and to an inability to imagine that “others” see things differently from the way you do. A parallel development over at least the past three decades is the power of explicitly and unabashedly faith-centered political factions to bring their views to bear in the public square, to exclaim against imminent moral decay in American life, and to rail against rising unbelief.
More and more Americans say they have no formal religious affiliation. National surveys, scholarly findings, and media coverage make that clear. Those identifying with “no religion”—often termed “nones,” “no religionists,” or the “unchurched”—jumped from 8.2 percent of the public in 1990 to just over 15 percent in 2008.
This trend causes some observers to cry out in alarm and others to rejoice. But the transition is far more complicated than a mere movement from faith to non-belief implies.
In 2002 we reported that the fraction of American adults with no religious preference doubled from 7 to 14 percent during the 1990s. Data from this decade show that the trend away from organized religion continues, albeit at a slower pace. Our analysis of the entire time series, presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in 2009, led us to the conclusion that the trend probably started earlier than we had thought—probably around 1985, 1986, or 1987—and that our previous estimate of the rate of change was, consequently, too high.