Global Religious Change


First Sunday after Easter

According to a new Gallup poll, the percentage of adults in the United States who belong to a church or other religious institution has plunged by 20 percentage points over the past two decades, hitting a low of 50%. Church membership was 70% in 1999 — and close to or higher than that figure for most of the 20th century. Since 1999, however, the figure has fallen steadily.

Among Americans, who identify with a particular religion, the sharpest drop in institutional membership is among Catholics: from 76% to 63% over the past two decades. Membership among Protestants dropped from 73% to 67% percent over the same period.

Most interestingly, among Hispanic Americans, church membership has dropped from 68% to 45% since 2000. Bad news for Catholic church leaders who have been counting on Hispanics to keep their church alive.

So what is happening? I suggest there is an increasing erosion in the level of trust people have for institutions in general and for churches in particular. Just look at the current U.S. political landscape….This trend will continue until institutional credibility is restored. If and when. Institutions and institutional leaders become credible only when they speak in a helpfully meaningful way about contemporary life issues.

An important factor in the the examination of contemporary religion is being clear that “religion” and “faith” are not the same thing. Major complications arise when this distinction is unknown or ignored. Religion should support and promote faith but doesn’t always do that. Faith is a person’s relationship with the deepest heart of Reality, called “God,” the “Divine,” or in the language of theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) the “Ground of Being.”

Religion is an institutionalized interpretation of the faith experience, expressed in a system of beliefs and practices. Ideally it should point people to the Divine. In practice it sometimes points only to itself. Then a form of idolatry takes over: not the Divine but the institution, with its doctrines, power bosses, and structures, becomes the object of veneration.

Another contemporary example of the use of religion. Back in 2016, many journalists pointed out a stunning change in how religious values were understood. They noted how white evangelicals perceived the connection between private and public morality. In 2011, a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Religion News Service found that 60 % of white evangelicals believed that a public official who “commits an immoral act in their personal life” cannot still “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” But in an October 2016 poll by PRRI and the Brookings Institution — after the release of numerous revelations of sexual immorality by a key political figure in Washington DC — only 20 % of evangelicals, answering the same question, said that private immorality meant someone could not behave ethically in public

Sometimes religions serve politics more than God.

Where there is religion there is a continual need for healthy criticism and reformation. European Christianity experienced a big Reformation in the sixteenth century. An even bigger one is underway right now but its extent and shape are still evolving. Things like, former pope, Bishop Ratzinger’s recently published reflections and trouble-maker Steve Bannon’s attacks on Pope Francis are mere distortions.

Back to some recognizable trends….Across 27 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, more people in North America and Europe say religion plays a less important role today than it did 20 years ago: in the U.S.A. (58%), in Canada (64%), in Germany (51%), in Poland (46%), and in the Netherlands (61%), by way of examples.

Note well, however, that adults in the Asia-Pacific region have a very different perspective on the role religion plays in their societies. In Indonesia (83%), the Philippines (58%), and in India (54%) believe that religion has a bigger impact on their nations today than it did 20 years ago. However, in South Korea, Japan and Australia, people tend to say religion has become less important or there has been no change.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, a 65% majority thinks religion plays a more important role in their country, and 60% of Kenyans say the same. Significantly, large majorities in these countries (96% and 93%, respectively) say religion is very important in their lives.

How does one interpret these trends? That calls for more research and reflection. Much, I believe, has to do with the cultural and political roles that religion plays in people’s lives. In the Putin era in Russia, by way of example, the Russian Orthodox Church is extremely powerful and strongly supportive of the government. If you want to move ahead in Russia, you must be Orthodox. Only 18% of today’s Russians think religion is les important that twenty years ago.

This will be an ongoing discussion in various says.

Personally, I am still a believer but much less “religious” than twenty years ago. Some of my old religious practices just don’t make sense to me anymore. But my daily prayer and contact with the Divine are stronger now than ever. I scratch my old head about to speak in contemporary language about God. Nevertheless, I am hardly a saint but I do truly believe I journey with God each day and that with the love of my wife, son, and friends keeps me going.

Next week some thoughts about Christianity and world religions…..

11 thoughts on “Global Religious Change

  1. So so thoughtful . I am with you ❤️

    Susanne Hartung SP
    Mission Integration Officer
    Shared Services
    Providence St. Joseph Health
    Cell 206 601 8352

  2. Thanks, Jack, for this information and analysis. A well-known quote from Bishop Spong came to mind again when I read your essay: What the mind cannot accept, the heart can finally never adore. Until the churches/religions teach truths relevant to our world and understanding today, they will continue to diminish in numbers. This is such an enlivening time to to be alive as our notions of God are undergoing such huge change.

  3. Once again, Jack, you send us wisdom. I feel, as you do, that time has changed many of my perspectives. I question, provoked by life experience, some of our “religious” practices that seem nonsensical. Yet, not doing what I have been told will bring me closer to the Divine has not, in fact, separated me from my feeling of connection to God. “Father knows best,” seems to allow one to avoid critically thinking about making real choices about finding God in our lives. But your thoughts, and those of other wise thinkers, make the search for connection to God more hopeful and peaceful. Thank you for inspiring.
    Peace,
    Frank Skeltis

    • I appreciate your comment, Frank. I’m reading Elizabeth Johnson’s “Quest for the Living God” and she points out that as circumstances and culture change, so does our experience God. Hence, it’s necessary to interpret God anew to fit the changing circumstances. This is more challenging and mature than to simply do what we’re told by the religious authorities if their answers don’t sit well with us. But it is also how we participate in the making of God’s world. We make the best judgments we can with advice and prayer as helps and thus shape the world.

    • As a former neighbor and long time close friend, Carol Trumbull forwarded this to me. Thank you for writing such an informative and current article. As an American Episcopalian, I believe my denomination has worked toward relevancy but it has been a struggle, for some more than others. I look forward to reading more of your comments.

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