Sunday, April 21, 2019

Christianity and the Non-Affiliated in America: A Changing Mix

The 2018 General Social Survey found the proportions of Roman Catholics, Evangelical Christians, and people not affiliated with any institutional religion to each being within the margin of error around 23 percent of the American population.[1] To be sure, to claim no institutional religion does not necessarily mean not being religious, or at least spiritual. Where the heart is concerned, religious institutions, or organizations, do not monopolize religious or spiritual sensibilities or sensitivities. In fact, I contend that a spiritual or even religious instinct exists in humans that can differ among individuals in salience or force. To be sure, people in whom the instinct is pressing may tend to belong to religious organizations, but this is not to say that the latter are necessary for feeling and manifesting the instinct. This is particularly true, I submit, where programmed worship is unwittingly formulated in a way that actually interrupts or thwarts outright the experience of transcendence, whether in sustained prayer, worship, communion, or meditation.
In regard to the Christian rites of Communion, the laity's experience after the Body and Blood are ingested is typically attenuated, especially when the Eucharist comes at the end of the liturgy. In Roman Catholic churches, for instance, the time for transcendent experience while the congregations are kneeling in the pews is typically just long enough for the “dishes” to be done at the table. Some priests give more significance to the washing itself than to the laity’s spiritual urge for a transcendent experience found in yearning for communion with the unknown divine, which, according to St. Denis, is beyond the limits of human cognition, perception, and emotion. It is understandable, therefore, that people can be seen heading straight for the doors once they have received Communion. While I have not observed this "walking out" tendency in Protestant sects that regularly include a Eucharistic rite, the same holds concerning the lack of emphasis on the experience of transcendence after the two species are consumed. Excepting "high church" Episcopalian (e.g., the Oxford Movement) and Lutheran congregations, perhaps the laity sitting rather than less ordinary kneeling, and less ritualistic emphasis on the sacrality of the consecrated Body and Blood themselves (i.e., the species) by the clergy conducting the rites reduces the efficacy of ritual as a prep for religious experience. 
To be sure, the reverence paid to the two species themselves may have become overdone, and even invented. One early Christian book, the Didache, reports that crumbs of the concentrated bread could be found on the floor after Sunday liturgies in halls. Whether in sermons or ritual, the increasing focus on the sacredness of the species could divert attention from the experience following the ingesting of them. Hence, once the species are gone, the presumed high point of the liturgy can be assumed to have passed; the experience of transcendence can thus be treated as an after-thought, practically speaking. Of course, adoration of the Host (i.e., the consecrated bread) does not include ingestion; the experience of transcendence lies in yearning for the divine essence through focusing on the specie. Both in this respect and in offering a sustained experience following the Eucharistic rite, Roman Catholicism and "high church" Protestant congregations have the potential to more fully satisfy the urge for transcendence. 
It would be highly reductionistic to suggest that the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. falling 3% from 2014 to 2018 was exclusively due to expedited Communion, and that the percentage of mainline Protestants (excepting Black churches) falling 10% from 1991 to 2016 was exclusively due to watered-down (i.e., less sacred), truncated Communion. I contend that in all of those sects, the programming, even including announcements before (or during!) the service/Mass, breaks up a sustained buildup for and experience of transcendence. The latter is not something that can be quickly turned on and off like a light switch, and yet this is precisely the operative assumption in a typical Christian service or Mass.

Of course, other factors doubtless apply to the respective percentage losses, which, by the way, do not necessarily mean fewer people as the U.S. population was increasing during the respective periods. Generally speaking, the extant secular societal cultures in the West could have provided for a softer landing on the non-affiliated turf. Less shame or defensiveness could have been felt in "coming out" as, or becoming a humanist or other sort of atheist. Atheists could more easily find each other through social media on the internet while the presumed default for being a theist continued to be belief in an intelligent being based outside of the material realm (i.e., Creation).[2] 
Indeed, the sex-abuse by Catholic priests and related cover-ups by bishops, cardinals, and even popes may have sullied the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church and even institutional religion itself. In the cases of the 3% drop in the percentage of Catholics from 2014 and another 3% drop before that, from 2007 to 2014,[3] it is probably no coincidence that reports of child-rapes by priests and related cover-ups by bishops and even at least one cardinal were hitting the press. The film, Spotlight, which centered on the reporting by the Boston Globe on over 90 priests who had molested children, came out in 2015. Bernard Law, an American cardinal in Boston, with other local church officials, had moved one priest around rather than going to the authorities even though that priest had raped or molested 130 children over decades. Weeks after Law resigned in Boston, he went to Rome, where Pope John Paul II appointed Law as Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, a sinecure with only ceremonial duties. The post conveyed citizenship in Vatican City, so it may have been made to shield Law from the law. As if this were ironic, a cardinal claiming to be a believer in the teachings and way of Jesus moving a child-rapist around rather than reporting him is a far deeper irony. Any Catholics who subsequently left their Church out of a sense of disgust even at the lack of justice in the Vatican, not to mention the heinous acts themselves, could be thought to have gained divine favor, and the Church to have earned divine disapprobation and in the future perhaps divine retribution. In 2014, 13% of all U.S. adults were former Catholics. No other religious institution in America experienced a greater net loss due to religious switching.[4] In retrospect, given the gravity of the crimes and the hypocritical leadership, that the percentage drops (and switching) were not greater may be perplexing in its own right.
Given the 10% drop in the percentage of Americans who identified as mainline Protestants from 1991 to 2016, the Catholic switching seems pale. Apparently a duty-felt urge to make a change on principle or faith (i.e., as a disciple or follower of Christ) is not as strong as the inertia of convenience in human nature.  
At any rate, it doesn’t seem much of the Catholic "switching" landed in mainline Protestant sects. The elephant in the room both concerning the Catholic and mainline drops was non-denominational evangelical Christianity. The percentage of mainline Protestants had dropped appreciably in the first half of the 1980’s just as the percentage of evangelical Christians was increasing. In 1979, Ronald Reagan had boosted the societal footprint of Evangelical Christianity by highlighting that segment in his base as he campaigned for the U.S. presidency. This only made the novel form of Christianity more visible, however.
In terms of liturgical expression, whereas the Catholic Mass and mainline services had become (or always were) rather sober (except for the wine) and staid, an evangelical service, such as those in the emerging megachurches, sported rock bands and emotional sermons that could energize Christians in their faith. More importantly, the instrumentals and even vocal repetitions that often extended beyond a song’s regular length provided a platform for sustained transcendent experience. It was not only possible, but encouraged. 
On Easter 2019, for instance, I visited a small evangelical church to observe external indications of sustained transcendent experience. Above and beyond the congregants who were standing and waving their arms (and in two instances, flags) in the air as the instrumentals and repetitioned vocals continued, a 21 year-old man at the front near one of the side walls caught my attention, for the indicators of sustained transcendent experience were "off the charts." That is, I had the impression that I was observing a considerably more intense and sustained experience of transcendence. In this case, it was through worshiping and praying seamlessly and thus in a temporally sustained manner. The man's experience was not short, as it could have been from being interrupted by programming that did not give adequate time for such sustained experience (e.g., by an organized prayer, a sermon, or even announcements!). 
Regarding the empirically observable indicators themselves, his eyes were closed except for when he was singing from the monitor directly in front of him. Even then, he seemed to be looking beyond, upward. This looking beyond is a good indicator of transcendence beyond this realm (i.e., beyond our "world"). He held his arms up above him or put his hands in a prayer pose directly below his chin while he was singing or praying. Most of the time, his eyes were closed. Occasionally he would dance, but more often rock from the leg in front to the one behind. Most interesting of all, he would periodically pray in a pose known as child's pose in yoga. His face was against the carpet while he held his arms back along the floor. His back faced up like a turtle's shell. The position alone, which Muslims and Sikhs use in prayer, intimated the subservience of a creature to the Creator. That the man's eyes looked as if he had cried or been sweating suggested to me that he had put intensity into the experience. This was how he differed so much from his co-congregants who were sitting at tables or standing (even those standing who held their arms up and closed their eyes). Yet even such a sustained experience could explain the draw from Catholicism and the mainline sects. In any event, the young man's sustained and intense experience would not have been possible in a Mass or mainline service (although toward the end of the 2010's, some mainline congregations were adding services akin to the modern evangelical ones). 
Whereas the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant organizations were truncating and even eclipsing transcendent experience, evangelical Christianity was providing an opening. This is not to say that the opening was sufficiently open to take in morally or liturgically dissatisfied Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.
The doctrinal and moral rigidity, for instance, considerably narrowed the gate—unnecessarily so if transcendent experience is the litmus test. For example, it is typically expected in evangelical churches that a Christian has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Catholicism does not make this assumption, and in fact tries to avoid it. This is not to say that rigidity does not apply to Roman Catholicism. For instance, even a pope, Francis, urged the priests and bishops to stop obsessing on the moral issues of abortion and homosexuality. After all, Jesus in the Gospels is silent on both. In fact, the obsession as a point of attention may have come at the expense of an alternative focus on sustained transcendent experience as facilitated by liturgy. In the liturgy itself, considering the consecration of the bread and wine to be the cleric's high point, and that of the Mass itself comes at the expense of the communing experience as the high point. 
I suspect that the non-affiliated category benefited most from the moral obsession spread across several Christian sects, such that institutional religion itself could come to be associated with a "holier than thou" attitude and even moral hatred. Hate the sin, love the sinner may be too much to ask even of clergy who preach love thy neighborThe hypocrisy alone from this and the raping of children (as well as the cover-ups) has a bad odor, which likely prompted some Catholics to find higher ground even as the herd animals used to the stench continued to graze; hence the percentage drop was not greater. Interestingly, the clergy including those in the Vatican did not seem to realize the depth to which their religious institution was losing credibility, and yet they themselves, as if with the blood still on their hands, had committed the act! Like the light from a distant star that has not reached Earth, news of the act had not yet reached them. Nevertheless, priests stressed loyalty to the church hierarchy no matter what. Observing a Mass in 2018, I heard a priest say this to a congregation during his homily: "You must obey the hierarchy!" When credibility is finally seen to be crumbling, the weak who seek to dominate by  Thou Shalt Nots instinctively do not stop at moral interdiction, for they are desperate.[5]
Generalizing beyond Catholicism exclusively, other factors probably played into the percentage changes for the three religious segments. Perhaps it can be concluded that people affiliated with religious institutions tend to walk more to something exciting than away from something sordid. Moreover, self-interest, whether moving to or staying with something deemed beneficial (or convenient), has a greater instinctual force than does moving on principle, whether moral or religious. As for the astounding rise in the percentage of Americans who did not identify with any religious institution or group, I suspect that the way in which Christian sects have gotten caught in the controversial thicket of social ethics even at the expense of an alternative focus on transcendent experience, the many scandals regarding ministers and priests, whether in terms of personal hypocrisy or criminal acts, and the bad way in which liturgies have treated or accommodated transcendent experience are relevant. To be sure, different liturgical styles are natural, given all the different propensities of the faithful. Even so, the liturgical programming has in many cases come at the expense of religious experience, so it makes sense that even people with a spiritual or religious propensity would not affiliate themselves. 
Indeed, if humanists had cause to look at the distant planet of religion with disgust, it may have been from that planet’s own doing rather than just an inactive religious instinct or, in contrast, a lack of desire for transcendent experience. For enough cleric inhabitants of that planet had committed (and were still committing) atrocities as if with impunity from human law and even divine judgment, and/or had desiccated  liturgies  while enough of the laity stood by, hence enabling the culprits or the incompetent, that the planet's luster diminished. In other words, the planet itself had gained a reputation for being human, all too human, and thus with such a thick, darkened atmosphere that sustained experiences of transcendence came to be stifled rather than facilitated.  

On transcendent experience, even as impacting work, see my book, Spiritual Leadership in Business: Transcending the Ethical, available at Amazon.    

2. Prof. Louis Dupre of Yale suggested in a lecture in the mid 1990's that, based on St. Denis's writings, it is enough for a theist to believe that God transcends the limits of human cognition and perception rather than going further to say that God is an intelligent being. If so, the commonly held view that a theist must believe the latter too be one reason that people identify themselves as humanists or atheists more generally.
3. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” The Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015.
4. Ibid.
5. In this paragraph, I am applying Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy regarding the "new bird of prey," the ascetic (i.e., weakened) priests who nonetheless have a relentless urge to dominate even the strong. See Nietzsche's text, On the Genealogy of Morals. The second essay is on the ascetic priest figure. I have written a book applying this figure to business ethicists and managers. See On the Arrogance of False Entitlement.