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Giving thanks, but to whom? Fewer Americans embrace organized religion

‘Jesus loves you,’ Nevada. Jonas Witt/flickr, CC BY-ND

Fewer Americans may be asking for God’s blessing of their Thanksgiving meal this year.

Religious participation is declining among Americans even though religion is still very popular. According to the latest Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Forum, the percentage of Americans who believe in God, attend religious services and pray daily has declined significantly during the last eight years, especially among adolescents. The drop in religious participation is larger among whites, and less among blacks. One group bucking the trend is political conservatives, who show no decline.

The Pew surveys document the rise in secularism but don’t attempt to explain it.

Psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues have cited a rise in narcissism and self-centeredness among young people, but in truth there are no hard data scientifically linking narcissism to the decline in religious participation.

Could something else be behind this important shift?

As a researcher who has spent 30 years studying human motivation, I believe we embrace or reject religion based on our values. I see four possible psychological reasons for the recent rise in secularism in America based on decades of studying what makes people tick.

Surveying 100,000 people

Up or down? Bindalfrodo/flickr, CC BY-ND

Decades ago, we began by creating a list of every possible goal or motive we could think of. We then asked people to rate the extent to which each goal motivated them.

The respondents indicated how much they love to learn, for example, play sports or do things their way. We have surveyed about 100,000 people from many cultures in North America, Europe and Asia.

As described in my book Who Am I?: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Behavior and Define Our Personality, we discovered that humans share 16 basic desires.

They are: acceptance, curiosity, eating, family, honor, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power, romance, saving, social contact, status, tranquility and vengeance.

My colleagues and I now believe that everything that moves us – all human motives – express one or more of these 16 basic desires.

For the past 10 years, we have been learning how these desires play out in religion and spirituality. In my latest book, The 16 Strivings for God: The New Psychology of Religious Experience, I suggest that virtually every religious belief and practice expresses one of the 16 basic desires, or two or more of them acting together. Your most important desires may be curiosity and social contact, for example, but your partner’s most important needs may be acceptance and order.

We have a choice of satisfying our desires through religion and spirituality or through secular institutions. The believer may satisfy his or her need for acceptance by embracing God-as-savior, whereas the nonbeliever might embrace, say, positive psychology. The believer may satisfy a need for status by embracing the idea of having been created by God, whereas the nonbeliever might pursue wealth and materialism to feel important.

Religion rises and falls in popularity depending on how well it satisfies our needs versus the secular alternatives. Viewed in this light, four major shifts in secular culture may be behind the decline in religious affiliation.

1. Organized religion versus spirituality

Looking within. premasager/flickr, CC BY-ND

Philosopher William James, whom some consider the “Father of American psychology,” and psychiatrist Carl Jung, who developed the idea of the extrovert and introvert, were among those who embraced mysticism, or a sense of the Absolute, but had little use for organized religion. James taught us to search for the mystical, personal God that meets our needs as individuals. Jung wrote that organized religion gets in the way of the true religious encounter.

Historically, mysticism – or what some call “spirituality” – has been associated with disinterest in organized religion.

More Americans than ever are saying that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” In the 2012 survey by the Pew Religion and Public Life Project, nearly a fifth of those polled said that they were not religiously affiliated. That number has increased to 23% in the latest study.

People seem to be shifting their search for meaning by looking within rather than to the heavens. This may be motivating a decline of interest in organized religion.

2. Tribalism versus humanitarianism

Gurka soldiers welcome a Royal Marine. Defence Images/flickr, CC BY-ND

A common way of honoring one’s ancestors is to embrace their moral code and religion. Historically, loyalty to the tribe and clan has motivated participation in organized religion. Freud called attention to the tribal roots of religion in his essay Totem and Taboo.

French sociologist and philosopher Emile Durkheim observed the role of religion in communal bonding.

The global economy may have significantly increased social contact among people from different cultures and religions. As we learn the similarities of people everywhere, I suggest that many of us may be less inclined to think of people as Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews, and more inclined toward thinking of people of faith as similar regardless of religious affiliation.

Globalism may be driving a rise in interest in interfaith activities. As we relate more to people globally, we may realize as never before that ours is not the only true religion.

3. Traditional versus nontraditional families

Thanksgiving prayer. Perry Nelson/flickr, CC BY

Historically, organized religions have relied heavily on the family to raise religious children and recruit new church members. Today we have a major restructuring of the family, with fewer than half of US kids living in a traditional family. This change in family structure may be responsible for less successful religious training and recruitment of young people.

Organized religion may put forth myths and symbols less relevant to children growing up in nontraditional families versus traditional ones.

The Bible, for example, does not address children of divorced parents. These children may feel uncomfortable with certain religious teachings, such as God’s disapproval of divorce. They may think God disapproves of their parents or them.

4. Trust versus loss of confidence in institutions

The internet has given us unprecedented access to information about our institutions, many times exposing their darker sides.

As we learn more about our society and its institutions, we sometimes become painfully aware of hypocrisy and scandal. That may be one important reason that confidence in many of our institutions, from business to schools to government, is below historical norms.

Confidence in religion, in particular, is at an all-time low, partly because of religious scandals in the Catholic Church and elsewhere. Such scandals encourage cynicism among many observers regardless of their religious affiliation. Interestingly, the confidence of Catholics seems least affected.

I believe these four factors have played a role in making organized religion less adept at meeting people’s basic desires. That doesn’t mean this will always be so. Religion may change and adapt – as it has before – to better meet our basic human needs.

Whether it will remains an open question.

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