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American Pie: The End Of Religion Is Nigh?

“My impression is that all the major world-religions are under assault, both from the inside and from external forces, and I’m led to wondering where this might lead,’’ writes John Merchant in this column which demands attention from believers and non-believers in a deity.

For more of John's thoughtful and entertaining words please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=john+merchant

And do visit his Web site.

In trying to make sense of the daily news, both real and manufactured, I’m struck by a thread that, at first, seems outlandish. My impression is that all the major world-religions are under assault, both from the inside and from external forces, and I’m led to wondering where this might lead.

As a choirboy in a Church of England parish during the World War II years, I was accustomed to large, participatory congregations; and for special occasions such as Easter or the Christmas carol service, it was standing room only. As the War progressed and the threat to our homeland diminished, attendance declined, and those who persisted were not the active congregants of prior years.

By the time I left England in the 1970’s, congregations of all denominations had declined to the point where several were sharing a cleric, and many had closed or been converted to warehouses or bingo halls. The last time I visited the UK, a few years ago, I was struck by how even more secular the population had become.

By and large, my adopted country, the USA, is more religious by far than the UK, but even here, congregations of all Christian denominations are riven by disagreements with their leadership, and between factions within denominations. The US Catholic Church, once so unified in its deference to Rome, is becoming more and more disenchanted with the Holy See, and regularly talks of cessation.

For its part, the Vatican, once the bastion of Christian orthodoxy, and valued by Catholics everywhere for its staunch resistance or slow reaction to change, now appears to be fighting a rearguard action against its critics. The Vatican’s recent, reluctant acknowledgement of pervasive child abuse by its clergy, a less categorical rejection of homosexuality in general, and a tacit, but almost non-statement that contraceptive use is acceptable “in some circumstances,” represents a shift from its previous authoritarian position on these issues.

One can only assume that such doctrinal changes, small though they may seem to the laity, are designed to stem the drift away from Papal Catholicism, particularly in America and Europe.

Eastern religions also are dealing with threats to their future. Islam is at war with all non-Islamic faiths and with its self. The militant factions’ interpretation of the Koran differs radically from that of the moderates. Buddhism is dealing with two ostensible Dalai Lamas: one created and set up by the Chinese to serve their ends, the other appointed by traditional protocols and now exiled in India. Hinduism will find it hard to survive against the tide of modernization and development currently transforming India.

Judaism, which mostly goes about its business quietly, is none-the-less dealing with its own internal tensions. Most non-Jews are unfamiliar with the Messianic rifts among the Lubavich Orthodoxy since the death of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson in 1994. As spiritual leader of the Lubavich sect, the intellectual and mystical Rebbe was widely believed by his followers to be the next Messiah.

Part way through writing this article, I began to think that perhaps I was being presumptuous in assuming I was qualified to follow where it was leading, and put it aside. That was a few weeks ago, and the reason I took it up again was an article in Time Magazine. The headline read “Organized religion 'will be driven toward extinction' in 9 countries, experts predict.”

The author, Richard Allen Greene, of CNN, was reporting on a paper written not by theologians or philosophers, but by a team of mathematicians: Abrams, Wiener and Yaple. They predict that “organized religion will all but vanish eventually from nine Western-style democracies, based on census data stretching back 100 years.”

It won't die out completely, they say, but predict "religion will be driven toward extinction" in countries including Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands.” They also predict it will wither away in Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Switzerland. They can't make a prediction about the United States because the U.S. census doesn't ask about religion, lead author Daniel Abrams told CNN.

"We start with two big assumptions based on sociology," Abrams explained. “The first is that it's more attractive to be part of the majority than the minority, so as religious affiliation declines, it becomes more popular not to be a [follower] than to be one.” Abrams calls this the majority effect. He observes that social networks also can have a powerful influence on movements, as has been seen recently in the Middle East.

The other assumption underlying the group’s prediction is that there are social, economic and political advantages to being unaffiliated with a religion in countries where it's in decline. "The utility of being unaffiliated seems to be higher than being affiliated in Western democracies," Abrams said.

University studies suggest that "unaffiliated" is the fastest-growing religious group in the United States, with about 15% of the population falling into a category experts call the "nones. They're not necessarily atheists or non-believers, experts say, just people who do not associate themselves with a particular religion or house of worship at the time of the survey.

Only the Czech Republic has a majority of people who are unaffiliated with religion, but the Netherlands, for example, is expected to go from about 40% unaffiliated today to more than 70% by 2050. Even deeply Catholic Ireland will see religion die out, the research predicts. "They've gone from 0.04% unaffiliated in 1961 to 4.2% in 2006, our most recent data point," Abrams says.

Abrams, Wiener and Yaple are not the first to predict the end of religion. Peter Berger, a former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, once said, "People will become so bored with what religious groups have to offer that they will look elsewhere."

He claimed that Protestantism "has reached the strange state of self-liquidation," that Catholicism was in “severe crisis,” and anticipated that "religions are likely to survive only in small enclaves and pockets" in the United States. He made those predictions in February 1968!


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