The key finding of the Pew Forum’s recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey was this:
More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion – or no religion at all.
So nearly 1/3 of American adults (that according to the survey of 35,000 18-and-overs) have left the religion of their youth. While interpretations vary regarding these findings — from the apparent decline of Christian cultural influence to the waning of institutional commitments among the next generation — most agree the survey is indicative of a fairly significant change in America’s religious landscape.
Certainly, changing religions is not that unusual. It’s the degree to which Americans –once clearly monotheistic and Judeo-Christianized — have eschewed their roots for other spiritual pastures, that is alarming.
The report notes that “religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid.” Diverse and fluid. That’s our religious climate. But are our religious affiliations more fluid because our beliefs are more diverse (i.e., we change religions because there’s more options), or are our beliefs more diverse because our spiritual outlook is more fluid (i.e., we are philosophically / theologically untethered and are more free to tinker with religious views)?
I am firmly of this latter persuasion.
Of course, there could be many factors behind our “philosophical / theological fluidity.” You could argue that people leave the religion of their youth because their parents have not done a good job instilling that religion in their kids. Or perhaps the religion those parents are seeking to instill is inherently flawed or defective. In these cases, maybe it’s appropriate for someone to, at least, reevaluate their spiritual roots. But there’s a larger issue at work here, one that I think eclipses those factors.
This is the first generation that’s grown-up in a thoroughly postmodern American culture. The philosophical engine that drives postmodernism is relativism — the belief that truth is not absolute. Relativism undermines most traditional religious beliefs because it makes the individual the primary arbiter of truth, not a holy man, holy book, or church. Thus, what I feel is true or believe is true, is true for me. If the principles of Buddhism appeal to me more than the principles of Christianity, well then, that’s my truth. In postmodern America, there is no objective way to corroborate faith other than personal preference, which in this case, has actually become our religion.
Is it any coincidence that the more postmodern we become, the more fluid becomes our religious beliefs and affiliations? I don’t think so. However, if we continue along this path, religious beliefs and affiliations will become trivial and, ultimately, expendable.