Where is Religion Heading?


Some protest reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and on the dollar bill. Others challenge clubs like the Boy Scouts for not admitting atheists into the organization. Intellectuals on campusís worldwide proudly profess their emancipation from religious ideology. As there is no doubt that secularism has increased in our society and in the world at large, the question surfaces: in the future should we expect religion totally to wane? Well, unlike Wilson, I will argue that religion due to its dynamic and resilient nature will be around for a long, long time.

To begin with, it is important to understand that religion is never static but is constantly changing and evolving. What was once a conservative religion at odds with society eventually accommodates itself and becomes more moderate to a liberal version. But this is only half of the process, asserts H. Richard Niebuhr. As a conservative religion adapts from high tension with society to low, becoming an established movement, schisms or sects develop with the objective to return to traditional ways and to the supposedly "correct" interpretations. What we have is a never-ending cycle: conservative religions become moderate, then liberal; liberal religions become secular; and sects become conservative church movements to start the whole process over again[1].


Three Types of Religious Groups




What this means for the future of religion is significant: religion will endure. Of course, it seems that in our day and age with the advancement of science and the secularization of society religion will not be able to hold its ground. But this is indeed a misunderstanding of the whole dynamic process of religion. All religious economies have experienced secularization of some form or another, and it is this very secularization that allows for new religious trends to spring forth. In a sense, secularization is the fuel of religion; it stimulates religious innovation.

In this final chapter we will examine evidence that religion is not approaching its death but being reinvigorated in new, fascinating forms. Our interest will be on the rise of fundamentalism, the onslaught of cults, and the impact of the baby boomer generation on the religious scene.

Religious Trends in America



The Rise of Fundamentalism:

In modern America religious extremism, sometimes referred to as orthodoxy, is growing. The secularization thesis as argued by Peter Berger, which suggests that in the face of secularism religion will eventually lose its vitality, is being challenged. Some have even argued that America is in for a "Third Great Awakening" as orthodox religions, once marginal, are becoming mainstream.

The driving force behind orthodoxy is modernity. Orthodox religions promote very conservative theologies, morals and worldly dispositions in an attempt to fortress themselves against secular society. Many are attracted to conservatism in reaction to a rapidly changing world, where prayer is banned in public schools, abortion and homosexuality are more accepted, and many women demand equal rights. The taken-for-granted sense of reality that existed prior to the sixties exists no more and this is frightening for some. Common are modern life dilemmas, such as isolation, rootlessness and confusion about gender roles. Since it offers a strong sense of belonging and clear guidelines on how to live one's life, many turn to an orthodox religious community as an antidote to the ills of society. Such a community usually advocates a "return to traditional ways" and the re-establishment of an ordered and predictable world.

An example of an attempt to return to tradition is the promotion of the "traditional family model," with the male as the bread-winner and head of the home, and the woman as submissive and childbearing. According to Wade Clark Roof in American Mainline Religion, the "traditional family model" plays a decisive role in affecting the growth of orthodox religions, since such a model contributes to high birth rates and thus an increase in followers. (On the other hand, Liberal Protestantism, which de-emphasizes the "traditional family model," is experiencing a decrease in the number of religious practitioners.)

However, the argument that one can "return to tradition," that there is direct continuity with the past, is a bit fallacious. Religions are constantly being reconstituted in reaction to cultural forces, and so "pure" orthodoxy is not really possible. Many conservative religious ideas are not ancient but are in fact a mesh of new and old religious concepts. Nonetheless, the idea of "returning to tradition" is for many very comforting and may be a coping strategy in the midst of an overwhelming modern world of change.

Perhaps no other religion has had to confront the changes of modernity as Christianity has. In defense against new intellectual movements (such as evolution) and alternative religions brought by immigrants a strong conservative Christian movement began in sectarian fervor in the late nineteenth century. Attempting to purge "heresy," several Christian conferences were held and numerous newspapers published advocating a "return" to Christian ways of living. This movement, though, was split in the 1940's due to ideological differences, resulting in two main camps: The American Council of Christian Churches (supported by ultra-conservative Fundamentalists) and The National Association of Evangelicals (supported by somewhat less extreme, although still orthodox, Christians known as Evangelicals).

Nancy Ammerman in Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World describes Fundamentalism as a militant anti-modern organization of independent churches that allows absolutely no room for compromise. Sharp lines are drawn clearly demarcating the "true bible believers" (the "saved") from all the others denominations and faiths. Some of their greatest battles are fought against other Christian branches, which offer an alternative interpretation to Christianity and thus are sometimes viewed as even more threatening than non-Christian religions, including atheism. One of Fundamentalists' defining characteristics is their insistence on biblical literalism. The bible is viewed as neither subjective nor symbolic but an inerrant book of objective truth including ultimate answers to everything, even in the areas of science and history. Any form of biblical criticism is vehemently rejected. Moreover, most Fundamentalists exercise rigid moral standards, prohibiting drinking alcohol, dancing, and, in many cases, watching television. The "outside" secular world is often denounced as Satanic, and thick, insulating walls are built.

Evangelicals are also warriors against modernity, promoting a return to "old-time" religion. However, unlike the Fundamentalists, they are generally not as extremist in their position, attempting to at least cooperate with other Christian denominations. In some sense, then, Evangelicalism is a softer version than Fundamentalism. And this "softening" trend is even becoming more pronounced in the younger, more educated Evangelicals. James Davidson Hunter in Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation points out that the new generation has been exposed to more education and, consequently, is a lot more tolerant toward other faiths and life styles than the past generation. Describing Evangelicals as anti-intellectual bigots, says Hunter, is a misnomer. Other forms of accommodating to modernity include a greater acceptance of biblical contextualism and a rejection of religious exclusiveness. While orthodoxy may not be eroding for the Evangelicals, it certainly is being redefined here. Accommodation generally occurs because for the sect to be successful and not die out it must gather a significant following, and one way to accomplish this is to appeal to mainstream society. What initially started out as a sectarian resistance movement begins to slowly compromise more and more with modern thinking; although in comparison to the secular world it is still very conservative.


Classic Orthodox Groups

Religious extremism is also gaining ground in Judaism. Lynn Davidman's ethnographic study, Tradition in a Rootless World, indicates that many Jewish Americans today are attracted to orthodoxy because they are discontent with contemporary culture. But, as in orthodox Christianity, there are different responses to the secular world, some more extreme than others. Davidman studied two different orthodox communities (Hasidic and Modern Orthodox), in order to compare these responses. In her research, which focused on women in Judaism, she noticed that younger, less educated women who experienced a serious crises or came from a troubled family background were pulled more toward Hasidic Judaism, a staunchly conservative branch, and those attracted to Modern Orthodoxy were generally professional, older women who were seeking some solitude in an ever changing world. The former group experiences complete resocialization from the modern world and adapts completely new patterns of behavior and interactions, while the latter allows for some reconciliation between traditionalism and modernism and in a sense lives a bi-cultural existence. Seekers, then, seem to be attracted to religious communities that suit their needs.

Yet, while there is a rise of fundamentalism in Christianity and Judaism, it seems improbable that it will become America's new religious center determining American values. First of all, too many divisions occur within the conservative branches, generally between those who permit accommodation and those who fight to retain traditional thinking. And since a greater number of people today attend college, where they are taught tolerance and skepticism, there may develop even further schisms in the future. A national religious revival, a "Third Great Awakening" in America, would probably require greater cohesion than this.

In addition, what works against a "Third Great Awakening" is the intense growth of secularism. Liberal Protestantism, which used to be at the religious center in America, is losing many potential adherents to the secular drift. Prior to contemporary society, many of the educated were attracted to Liberal Protestantism, but now they fit more comfortably into the secularist camp. Also, more and more Liberal Protestants themselves are forsaking their tradition for secularism. The great emphasis on individualism within Liberal Protestantism has allowed for a smooth transition to secular thought. (For some, however, a new climate of freedom--what Roof calls "new voluntarism"--has led to an interest in experiential religion and an overall less involvement in organized religion.)

Hence, in America today, instead of a strong, conservative religious center, there continues to exist a "fragmented middle." Most likely, the religious scene will further divide as people react to modernity in different ways, either accommodating to it to a certain degree or resisting it altogether. The trends of religion, namely the growth of secularism and conservatism and the decline of Liberal Protestantism, will probably persist for some time.


The Cult Phenomenon:

How do cults fit into all of this? Cults, unlike sects, are not schisms since they have no connection to a parent religion; rather, cults are completely new movements in a society. They may have been church movements or sects from another culture imported into a new land, such as Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation brought into America, or may simply be a radically new group manifesting for the first time, such as L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology. Like sects, religious cults are in high tension with social mainstream but are also subject to accommodation and secularization. While cults are not the result of schism, they are vulnerable to it; hence, sects may break off from cults.

Not all cults are religions, however. Some cults deal solely with magic, that is, the manipulation of natural forces for a specific end or reward. On the other hand, religion, as Emile Durkheim points out, offers general compensators relating to the supernatural, such as claims of an afterlife. Religion has a definite advantage over magic: magic is susceptible to disproof if the promises of specific benefits are not actualized, while the claims of religion are non-falsifiable and hence not vulnerable to empirical verification.

Some cults, like Scientology, start off as a magic cult, offering through magical means access to a high mental state called clear-status, entailing perfect memory and genius I.Q. The problem with such claims is that they can be disproved. And in the case of Scientology they were. Consequently, Hubbard began to focus on more general compensators like ideas of reincarnation and admission into a heavenly sphere.



Two Types of Cults


The same trend from magic to religion occurred in the Transcendental Meditation movement. Originally, it presented itself as a "science" devoid of the supernatural. The goal was higher awareness through meditation. It became a religion only when it began to offer general compensators such as siddhis, or supernatural powers. It did so right when there was a huge decline in membership, perhaps as an attempt to present a shiny new product when sales were down. Soon after it was ruled in the courts a religion and prevented from entering school classrooms.

Many parents fear that their children will be brainwashed by such cult formations. But the "brainwashing theory" is very inconsistent with this overall analysis of religion. Well-balanced, educated people may be attracted to a cult religion not only because it is novel and exotic, but, like sect or church movements, it allows social bonding and offers general compensators, both of which seem to be basic needs of humans.

Most importantly, we must remember that all religions started at some time or another as a cult or a sect. Conventional religions practiced today are simply those sects or cults that were successful and were able to accommodate to mainstream society and attract a following. Christianity itself began as a cult; it was different enough from Judaism not to be considered a sect. In its early stages it assumed an otherworldly position and experienced high-tension with society, as the Roman persecutions will attest. In its two-thousand year history a variety of sects, including the Protestant movements, emerged. And as these movements moved from conservatism to secularism, more cleavages occurred. The result is an ever-growing and changing religious scene. As a missionary movement, Christianity was again of cult status, entering foreign lands with a foreign message.

As we see, cults cannot be blamed on the sixties, as some have tried to do. They are an essential element of the whole process of religion and are found throughout history in all societies. What actually facilitates their growth is secularization. Secularization does not produce an irreligious society, a popular claim among many sociologists, but an unchurched one interested in religious experimentation. It makes sense that cults abound where conventional religion is weak, such as in California. And, predictably, since much of Judaism has been secularized, cults are very popular among Jews. Sects, on the other hand, flourish where conventional religion is strong but has begun to accommodate to the social environment too much for some church members.

Arguably, in the future there will be a continuation of cult formation. As for magic and pseudoscience, it may possibly die out, since science has the advantage of now disproving such claims. But we most likely will never enter into a post-religious era, since religion seems to be a necessary constant in society with its general compensators, secure from scientific evaluation, giving hope and meaning to people's lives.


The Baby Boomer Effect:

Who are setting religious trends in the first place? Generally, the baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). Since there are roughly 76 million baby boomers today, about one third of America, the mindset of this cohort will no doubt permeate the cultural mainstream and have a significant effect on where religion is heading in our country. As baby boomers are approaching mid-life, for many it is a time of reassessment, deep reflection, and sometimes a change in religious views. Wade Clark Roof, in A Generation of Seekers, investigates the repercussions all of this has on America at large.

While there are enormous differences among baby boomers (the rich mosaic includes hippies, yuppies, liberals, new agers, secularists, even fundamentalists), there are also major commonalities that set this generation off as a distinct group. For instance, unlike the earlier generations which tended to unquestioningly accept the institutional tradition handed down to them, baby boomers, asserts Roof, are a "generation of seekers" on a spiritual quest. As a whole, boomers place emphasis on religious experience and, most importantly, on personal choice. They tend to differentiate between "religion" and "spirituality," with a preference for the latter, indicating a more subjective, experiential approach to religion. For some, organized religion is distrusted, viewed as too ritualistic, alienating and rule oriented.

Moreover, for most boomers the concept of God has been altogether transformed. In traditional Judeo-Christianity God is generally viewed as a transcendent being removed from nature. But boomers tend to embrace an Emersonian view of divinity, a holistic view of the world, where God, or the sacred, is part and parcel with nature. Valuing nature or being in harmony with it, through environmental movements like Earth Day, is for many a way to respect God. Several even describe God as Mother, similar to the nurturing image of Mother Earth.

Not only has the image of God changed, the perception of the self has also. Most boomers reject the Calvinistic idea that the self is evil and argue instead that it is good by nature. In fact, many speak of the "divinity" within each self and the importance of introspection and self-realization. The self, therefore, has great potential for growth and healing, the central theme of so many self-improvement books and classes available today (including 12-step programs). Physical exercise, like jogging and hatha yoga, is also encouraged, since the body, working in harmony with the spirit, is now more fully appreciated. This optimistic view of human nature has contributed to the idea of creating a new planetary society, referred to by many as the "new age" to come.



Typical Baby Boomer Characteristics


Perhaps we can explain the boomers' preoccupation with inner-self development by examining Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" idea. According to Maslow, once one's economic survival needs are met, there is now time for self-actualization. Since the baby boomer generation is in many ways the most prosperous of any group in history, it can now afford to concentrate on Maslow's final stage.

Many have criticized baby boomers for being narcissistic, but this is unfair, says Roof. The focus on the self is not to be understood as selfishness, but rather a desire for self-awareness. And this is not necessarily antithesis of community. As Joseph Butler argues, self-love and benevolence are two fundamental principles that work together. Recent surveys (available in Roof's A Generation of Seekers) indicate that most boomers yearn for a sense of community and have a great interest in social justice.

Additionally, boomers tend to be more tolerant of other lifestyles and beliefs than the preceding generations. This is most likely due to the fact that boomers have received more education and hence greater exposure to alternative perspectives, especially in humanities courses. As expected, cultural relativism and religious universalism (the belief that all religions speak a truth) are significantly more popular among boomers than religious absolutism is.

These general traits (privatism, spirituality, holism and relativism) are found throughout the baby boomer generation, whether loyalist, dropout or returnee. Loyalists (about thirty-three percent of boomers) are those who have remained loyal to their family's religion, while dropouts (about forty-two percent of boomers) have left institutional religion, either to embrace alternative religions, most likely what Ernst Troeltsch calls "mystical religion," or perhaps a purely secular approach. Approximately twenty-five percent of boomers fall into the third subculture, returnees. This group is of special interest to sociologists since they are returning to institutional religion and will probably have a major effect on transforming it. Why they are returning can be explained by considering at least three factors: first of all, boomers are entering mid-life and asking serious questions about life's meaning and religion offers many answers; secondly, many are now rearing children of their own and want to raise their family with some religious background; and, finally, for those experiencing a form of mid-life crises, institutional religions offer support groups and a sense of belonging to a community.











Three Groups of Baby Boomers


What does all of this possibly mean for religion in America? Very simply, religion in America is changing and the baby boomers are in large part responsible for it. Instead of religion disappearing in the modern world, as some have speculated, it simply seems to change forms, taking different expressions for different generations. For the baby boomer generation Western dualism needs to be overcome; for them, the sacred is found in nature and can be personally experienced. Perhaps, as Roof states, only under this new guise could the notion of the sacred continue to exist in the secular world.

Thus, religionís future does not look so grim. Religion may actually be growing as this large group approaches the age of 40-50, reevaluates life, and looks to religion as a source of comfort and community. As conventional religion loses ground to the baby boomers' version, new American religious trends are set, and, hopefully, as Roof suggests, both a "mature" self-image and more fulfilling religious perspective will continue to flourish.