This is the season for traditions: chestnuts roasting on an open fire, carolers on the doorstep, and the endless argument about the secularization of Christmas. This isn’t the usual complaining about the toy and greeting card companies commercializing the holidays, but a much broader trend involving the secularization of religion around the country.
We are still a nation whose coins say “In God We Trust,” where most witnesses in U.S. courts swear “so help me God,” and where our school kids pledge allegiance to “one nation, under God, indivisible.”
But God, as we have traditionally known Him, is evolving for more and more worshippers. Belief in the God revered by most mainstream religions — a highly specific, paternalistic deity with an agreed-upon history and behaviors — is on the decline.
According to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, only 76% of Americans identify as Christians, down from 86% in 1990. But interestingly, while non-Christians are not choosing Islam or Judaism, neither are they choosing atheism. A poll done by Gallup in 2008 found that 15% of Americans – up from 8% in 1999– say they don’t believe in God, but they do believe in a “Higher Power” or “Universal Spirit.” More and more, Americans believe that the world was created by a spiritual being, but they reject the Torah, the Koran and the New Testament as the explanation for it.
These universal-spirit worshippers, or what we call Religious Independents, are defining a secular Third Way in religion. They are like political independents who vote but refuse to affiliate with a party. Consequently, attendance at Christmas mass may be declining, but celebration of Christmas and the holidays remains as high as ever. Paradoxically, overall belief in a God is rising, while participation in organized religion is declining.
Demographically speaking, the Religious Independents, like their political counterparts, are more affluent and well-educated than traditional God-believers. We did our own poll to get at the differences between the traditionalists and the Religious Independents, and the results were striking. Americans with just a high school diploma are Religious Independents at a rate of just 10% – but attend even some college, and it shoots up to 30%. As more and more students attend college here and elsewhere, we can expect this trend to mushroom, since higher education strongly correlates with a rejection of organized religion in favor of a more amorphous notion of a Supreme Being.
The data suggest, though, that modern secularization will not lead us back to Sodom and Gomorrah, where lack of religion caused unrestrained amoral and reckless behavior. Religious Independents have a high belief in values like doing good, giving back to the community, and taking responsibility for our planet. They accept most of the Ten Commandments on moral, if not religious, grounds.
Our poll also revealed that whereas almost 70% of traditionalists say that after death, “there is either heaven or hell,” 54% of the Religious Independents say that “there is only what people remember of you.” A remarkable 75% of traditionalists say that they believe in angels, compared with only 45% of the Independents. And while 53% of traditionalists say they’ve had a “spiritual or mystical life experience that defies simple scientific explanation,” only 1 in 3 Religious Independents says that–and a majority (53%) reject that statement strongly.
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Perhaps most importantly, 83% of Religious Independents say it is more important to be ethical than to be devout, compared to only 64% of traditionalists. Seventy-two percent of Religious Independents say that living a good spiritual life depends on how you act, not what you believe — compared with only 59% of traditional followers. In other words, Religious Independents have just as strong a desire for repairing the world, even as they reject the habits and practices of religion.
All this has substantial implications for American culture. Religious Independents don’t want to get involved in cultural wars or fights over Christmas crèches. They are focused on self-improvement, not evangelism. Without high priests of any sort, they’re more apt to resolve political and ethical questions on issues like abortion on a case-by-case basis, rather than with dicta handed down from on high. And if they want transcendence, they will turn to yoga (said to be the fastest-growing sport in America), meditation, kabbalah or Buddhism– but not priests and churches. Indeed, as religious communities are tearing their hair out wondering why so many Americans have left God, it is worth noting that many Religious Independents feel that they were rejected first: while 63% of traditionalists say “Christianity stands for inclusion,” a plurality of Universal Believers, at 46%, says “Christianity stands for exclusion.”
Just as we have reached a record number of political independents in this country, so have we reached a record number of Religious Independents. Established institutions – whether secular or religious – are undergoing severe questioning. Unless traditional religions undertake more reform, we can expect to see this trend accelerate with the growth of universal access to higher education, and the unlocking of more and more mysteries of life through science in ways that were never expected in biblical times.
And yet, just as the two-party system has survived even though most voters are not part of a party, so organized religion has survived even the Dark Ages. At its core are a set of rituals and customs that bind communities of believers; these shared experiences build strong ties between friends and family and, more importantly, generations. Can a Universal Spirit with no anthropomorphic form—no stories, no earthly emissaries– be passed down through the ages? And can a carrot work without a stick? While God’s love is no doubt a source of comfort for many, fear of eternal damnation makes a pretty compelling argument, too.