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USA: Religion in the US Is No Longer Exceptional (and a Chat about the Afterlife)

Saturday 4 May 2019, by siawi3


Religion in the US Is No Longer Exceptional (and a Chat about the Afterlife)

April 29, 2019

by Jonathan MS Pearce

I have reported on the many surveys and the improved data (in terms of collection and methodology, and honesty of subjects) over the last decade that continues to show the trend in America – the rise of the “nones”. This trend shows no threat of abating. Indeed, it is getting to the point where being religious is becoming nothing unusual – and the same can be said for the nones. There is an equalisation in the demographics.

Much of this is down to the younger generations, growing up with what used to be moral taboos (homosexuality, abortion) becoming things that no longer are.

The Economist has recognised this in a recent article:

The share of Americans who acknowledge being members of a religious group is falling much faster than the proportion who, perhaps loosely, hew to one faith tradition or another. Comparing 2016-2018 with the last three years of the 20th century, declared participants in organised religion have plunged by nearly 20 points to 52%. And among millennials, signing up to a church is a minority (42%) pursuit, according to Gallup, a venerable pollster.

Membership of any faith is plummeting much faster among Democrats (71% to 48%) than among Republicans (77% to 69%) and it is not hard to imagine why. The closer the embrace between church and the Republican Party, the less appealing faith becomes to those on the left. But religion-watchers see a vast generational change which transcends political loyalty and will eventually embrace politically conservative youngsters too.

That people who tend towards Democrats are leading the charge is nothing unexpected. The most striking paragraph for me is this:

A change towards what, exactly? According to Mike Hout, a sociology professor at New York University, what Americans are rejecting is not the transcendent but simply structures and organisation. Younger Americans are more atomised and provisional in everything they do, from work to relationships, and that affects religious behaviour. He finds it telling that some polls suggest a steady to slightly rising belief in an afterlife, but declining faith in a Christian heaven: people often prefer things to be vague.

Unfortunately, there is no data to support this, or links. But if we took this on …faith… then this wouldn’t surprise me either. Goodness, when the woo of homeopathy maintains, and when flat earthism and anti-vaxxers are all over the internet, and when conspiracy theories have multitudinous followings, nothing surprises you. There is a pick ‘n’ mix approach to life and beliefs, these days. There, I’ve done it – made a similar claim and not backed it up with data. But you get my point. There seems to be a situation whereby you can believe what you want, and then look it up on the internet to find a website to defend that belief. So belief in a vague notion of an afterlife being prevalent, again, doesn’t surprise me in the least.

I was recently giving a philosophy lesson for some children, and talking about death, and the situation was this: virtually none of the class believed in God. The prevalence of the lack of belief in God is huge in the UK amongst, well, most people. There were some children who believed in an afterlife, though. one girl piped up, asking if she could believe in an afterlife if she didn’t believe in God. I started talking about epistemology – believing in things for good reasons and evidence – and then saying that it is very hard to evidence an afterlife, and so we must have good reason to believe in it – what were her good reasons?Don’t just believe something out of wishful thinking. Which is exactly what it was. She wanted to believe in an afterlife because her Gran had recently died. I brought into conversation, being children and not wanting her upset, the brilliance of the recent Disney film, Coco, for which the main theme was death. And in it, people live on in the “afterlife” only as long as someone on Earth remembers them, holds them in their memories. It’s a great and thought-provoking film.

Back to believing in a bona fide afterlife.

This is, it appears, a very common scenario. It’s connected to Terror Management Theory and dealing with death. Atheism is a hard sell on that count. Enter stage left “the afterlife”, helping you deal with the nihilism of death…

If these beliefs embed themselves in the young, then they often prevail and bypass the bullshit detection learnt in later years.

So, as I said, no surprise that these sorts of beliefs prevail. If (a belief in) an afterlife gives you psychological comfort, if it has that function, then irrespective of veracity, it will have a place in many people’s lives.