God is in a bear market.
Religious affiliation in the US is at its lowest point since it began to be tracked in the 1930s, as per the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the prestigious National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. One-fifth of the American public (and a third of those between the ages of 18 and 30) do not belong to a religious group—more than double the number reported in 1990 and up significantly from 1972, when only 5% of those polled claimed no religious affiliation. According to author James Emery White, the single fastest growing religious group of our time is those who check the box next to the word “None” on national surveys. In the last five years alone, the nones have increased from just over 15% to 20% of all US adults. The unaffiliated, at 1.1 billion, has also become the third-largest religious group worldwide, behind Christians and Muslims.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found evidence of a softening of religious commitment in the US public as a whole. A third of US adults say they do not consider themselves a “religious person” and seldom or never attend religious services. The GSS also shows that the percentage of Americans who were raised without an affiliation has been rising gradually, from about 3% in the early 1970s to about 8% in the past decade. Americans’ level of religious involvement peaked in the 1950s, based on research by sociologist Claude Fischer from the University of California Berkeley. Nearly three-quarters of the public (72%) now seems to think religion is losing influence in American life, and most people who say religion’s influence is waning see this as a bad thing.
If Ralph Waldo Emerson—one of our favorite American writers—were alive today he would surely be among those that disapproved. He believed: “[W]hat greater calamity can fall upon a nation, than the loss of worship? Then all things go to decay. Genius leaves the temple, to haunt the senate, or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold. The eye of youth is not lighted by the hope of other worlds, and age is without honor. Society lives to trifles, and when men die, we do not mention them.”
To be sure, the US still remains a highly religious country compared to most of the advanced world, both in faith and in practice. The Pew Research Center surveys find that the number of Americans who currently say religion is very important in their lives (58%) is little changed since 2007 (61%) and is far higher than in Britain (17%), France (13%), Germany (21%), or Spain (22%).
The Fall from Grace
The rise of science and discoveries in new medicine has allowed God to take a backseat in our increasingly busy lives. We are living through an age defined by the cult of happiness in which the “self” is the new god. French writer and philosopher Pascal Bruckner explains:
“On August 21, 1670, Jacques Bossuet, the bishop of Meaux and official preacher to the court of Louis XIV, pronounced the eulogy for Princess Henrietta of England … The wonder of death, Bossuet exclaimed, citing Saint Anthony, was that “for the Christian, it does not put an end to life but rather to the sins and perils to which life is exposed.” … The good death was a door opened on eternity, a passage to that “true, eternal life.” In this life, by contrast, agony was expected. Is it possible to imagine an attitude toward happiness and living further from our own? The eighteenth century saw the rise of new techniques that improved agricultural production; it also saw new medicines … Suddenly, this world was no longer condemned to be a vale of tears; man now had the power to reduce hunger, ameliorate illness, and better master his future. People stopped listening to those who justified suffering as the will of God. If I could relieve pain simply by ingesting some substance, there was no need to have recourse to prayer to feel better … In the 1960s, two major shifts transformed the right to happiness into the duty of happiness. The first was a shift in the nature of capitalism … Working no longer sufficed; buying was also necessary for the industrial machine to run at full capacity. To make this shift possible, an ingenious invention had appeared not long before, first in America in the 1930s and then in Europe in the 1950s: credit. … [C]redit changed everything; frustration became intolerable and satisfaction normal; to do without seemed absurd. The second shift was the rise of individualism. Since nothing opposed our fulfillment any longer—neither church nor party nor social class—we became solely responsible for what happened to us … Happiness is no longer a matter of chance or a heavenly gift, an amazing grace that blesses our monotonous days. We now owe it to ourselves to be happy, and we are expected to display our happiness far and wide. Thus happiness becomes not only the biggest industry of the age but also a new moral order. We now find ourselves guilty of not being well, a failing for which we must answer to everyone and to our own consciences. … To enjoy was once forbidden; from now on, it’s obligatory.”
No god but God
Whether we like it or not, religion is still hugely influential worldwide. More than eight in ten people claim to identify with a religious group. The belief in a deity has shaped the identity and values of people and communities at every stage of the evolution of humanity. And yet, we can’t ignore the fact that religion has also been used to promote controversy, violence, and hatred throughout much of recorded history. For whatever reason, our world today is increasingly fractured along religious lines. In our highly charged societies, religion cuts more deeply, arousing such powerful sentiments among people from different backgrounds that we are unable to put aside our differences. The whole world is fighting and devastating itself just because it cannot embrace diverse religious interpretations in an honest and calm
According to the Pew Research Center’s latest annual study on global restrictions on religion, nearly three-quarters of the world’s population (73%) are grappling with high levels of religious hostilities within their borders. This is up from 52% in 2011 and 45% in 2007. Christians and Muslims—who together make up more than half of the global population—faced harassment in the largest number of countries. Harassment against Jews also reached a seven-year high. Some of the countries in this category include Israel, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Russia. The share of countries where religious restrictions of some kind (related to either government or social groups) are either high or very high has also been rising. The tumultuous Middle East—where Christianity, Judaism, and Islam originated—still leads the world with some of the highest levels of restrictions on religion. China tops the list. Europe’s median score on Pew’s Social Hostilities Index (2.3) is also well above the global median (1.6). Harassment of Jews and Muslims is particularly widespread on the continent. Based on the study, Jews and Muslims experienced harassment in 34 and 32 of the region’s 45 countries, respectively, a higher share than in any other region.
We, with our narrowness of mind and faith, agnostic or believers, have erected barricades of race and creed. What we really need is to break down these walls of falsehood, so that we can once again strive to learn to live in harmony with each culture. Just like each language has its own word for “mother,” it is only natural that each culture has its own word to refer to the One which can’t be defined— God, Elohim, Allah, Ik Onkar, Jah, Khuda and many more words have all been used to mean exactly the same. For how long will we continue to make a graveyard of the globe?
Come, let us all be friends for once,
Let us make life easy on us,
Let us be lovers and loved ones,
The earth shall be left to no one.