Who Killed Religion?

Religion is dead. According to many pollsters and casual observers of culture, the death of religion is not only a possibility, it is actually an inevitable reality. To some people, the death of religion would be seen as a good thing and a necessary step toward the future. But to others, the absence of religion would be understood as another indicator of continual societal decay.

In 2008, Statistics Canada published an article titled “Canadians attend weekly religious services less than 20 years ago”, in 2010 the Pew Research Center wrote that “Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans”, and two months ago the BBC published a story that declared “Religion may become extinct in nine nations”. To religiously minded people, these are shocking statements. But what is behind the headlines? Why do many cultural commentators conclude that religion is dying? And what, if anything, is filling the void left behind?

First, as should be the case in any meaningful conversation at home, work or school, we need to make sure we know what we are talking about. By that, I simply mean that we need to define our terms (after all, who hasn’t argued with a friend about a certain topic, only to find out later that you both believed the same things and you were just using different words?). For this conversation, let’s define religion, religious affiliation, and spirituality. Religion often refers to an organized system of sacred beliefs about the supernatural, with a definable set of ethics and practices (eg, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, etc). Religious affiliation then, is simply a person’s self-identification with a specific religion. In contrast, spirituality is often understood as a person’s understanding of and experience with the supernatural.

The reason these distinctions are important is that polls, censuses and surveys typically track religious affiliation; that is, they reflect the extent to which people associate themselves with a particular religious group. And in Western countries, religious affiliation is dying. As a society, we are becoming less and less comfortable with identifying ourselves with a specific religious system or organization (although our interest in spirituality and religious dialogue is growing stronger). Why is that? There could be a number of reasons, and let’s look at three possibilities:

Part of our reluctance to “pick one religion” might come from being Canadian; making a choice may seem exclusive, and we don’t want to offend anyone. Or perhaps organized religion has let us down, both as individuals and as a society. Or maybe our unwillingness to declare our religious affiliation stems from our belief that we can create our own spiritual system, and we don’t want to put ourselves in a religious box that limits our freedom. And there may be other reasons, some thoughtful and some not.

Questions to ask ourselves and others …

  1. In terms of religious affiliation or spirituality, how would you describe yourself?
  2. How would you describe the current religious and/or spiritual trends in your city or community? How would you describe the religious affiliation of your next-door neighbours, your co-workers, and your friends?
  3. In your experience, is religion living or dying?
  4. Specifically, who is someone new who you can talk with this week about spirituality?

From the Prince George Citizen (May 19, 2011)

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