Monday, March 09, 2009

How to Jump to a Conclusion

A great deal of buzz today about results from a new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). The results of the poll are interesting, but not too much of a surprise to those of us in the trade. In a nutshell:
    Americans are still predominantly Christian, but they are becoming both less Christian and less religious. Three out of four Americans call themselves Christian, down from about nine out of ten in 1990

    "Born-again" or "evangelical" Christianity is on the upswing; members of "mainline" denominations such as Episcopal or Lutheran has fallen. One in three Americans consider themselves evangelical

    The percentage of Catholics in the US has remained steady (about one in four) since 1990, while the percentage of other Christians has dropped from 60 to 50 percent

    Some 15 percent of Americans say they have no religion, almost double the number from 18 years ago. Americans with no religious preference is now a larger group than all major religious groups except Catholics and Baptists
That last tidbit impresses me because it has generated a certain amount of conclusion-jumping, based on a scan of Google News headlines. Here's this from the Colorado Independent:

Losing their religion: Ranks of nonbelievers on the increase

Um, yes and no. Yes, one may infer from the survey that American are "losing" their religion, if "losing" is the word we want. No, the ranks of "nonbelievers" is not on the rise, at least not according to the data presented in the Colorado Independent's article.

The ranks of people who express no alignment with a religious group is indeed on the uptick.

But to not align oneself with an "organized" religious body is not to be a "nonbeliever." Maybe you are and maybe you're not. Maybe you believe in God in some form or fashion, but aren't too wowed about institutional churches. That hardly makes you a "nonbeliever."

You can read the Colorado Independent article yourself and see that they're sloppily describing "nones" (people who express "none" as their religious affiliation) as "nonbelievers."

A look at the ARIS website itself, however, does reveal this interesting nugget:
    Only 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million. Twenty-seven percent of Americans do not expect a religious funeral at their death.
(So, indeed, the number of "nonbelievers" is on the's just too bad that the Colorado Independent jumped at its conclusion from the wrong springboard.)

A side excursion: Based on the way certain folks rail against "attacks" on Christianity, is it not curious to note that the number of out-and-out atheists in the country is way, way smaller than the number of Christians? Weird, huh? Almost like there are no "attackers" at all, like the whole thing is a ratings-grabbing figment of some wingnut's imagination.

Personally, I find the survey's results to be less than alarming. As indicated above, they tend only to evince trends that one instinctively sensed already, viz., people are becoming increasingly disenchanted with "organized" religion, if that's not an oxymoron. This is bad news for organized religion, of course, and as someone whose income relies in part on the continued health of one such institution, perhaps I should be alarmed. But big-picture-wise -- God and humankind, the universe and eternity, the meaning of things -- well, none of the ARIS findings seem to send up flares. People aren't abandoning God; God isn't abandoning people. Church folk will insist that you can't have God without "church," but I don't think they're making the sale anymore. (Anyhow, really: Would a clergyman or -woman seriously tell you that you don't need church?)

If anything, the survey tends to incline me toward thinking that people are, on a spiritual level, still engaged. Just not institutionally.

Another side excursion: Some years ago, in my earshot, a member of the clergy expressed impatience with people who say they are "spiritual" but not "religious." His comment: "I say to them, 'So it's all about you, is it?'"

At the time I thought that a strange rejoinder. How does one get from "I'm not wild about the institution" to "So it's all about you"?

I'm still not sure about that, but upon reflection I have decided that that which was meant as a put-down actually carries some pretty significant weight.

Religion is, after all, all about me!

I mean, who else? God, whatever form he may take, certainly has no need of religion. So it's not for him. It seems unlikely that angels, cherubim, seraphim, and the rest of the heavenly host would have need of any "organized" religion, given their mailing address. So it's not for them. My cats seem completely uninterested in the whole topic, so I conclude religion isn't for them, either.

That would seem to Us--you and me. That's who religion is for.

And at every step, it seems more and more obviously that's it's all about me:
    My decision to subscribe to a religion, any religion, in the first place

    My decision to align myself with a particular church entity--Catholic or Protestant, Episcopal or Presbyterian, mega-church or storefront nondenominational gathering

    My decision to attend services at a particular parish or congregation

    My decision to accept or reject that which the religion preaches
And so on. It is all about me, and it's all about you, and that guy over there...for who else would it be about?

Seems to me that's kinda how it's supposed to be.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Where Are My Friends Going?

I'm growing increasingly worried about my Facebook friends.

They seem to be disappearing.

This happens all the time now: The little indicator in the corner of my screen says I have, say, eight "online friends." Sounds good. I click on it and the little window pops up ostensibly to display my eight "online friends" and their chat status. But wait! The little window pops up to a couple of inches in height, then immediately shrinks down to an inch or so, and both it and the indicator now aver that I have, say, five "online friends."

What has happened to those three missing "online friends"??

Is anybody looking for them? Can I be the only one who's noticed their disappearance?

Or is someone systematically "disappearing" anyone who notices the disappearances of all these "online friends"?

In which case it's entirely possible that I am in grave dange--