Feb 2, 2015

Religious interest continues, even as affiliation declines

Religious affiliation is on the decline. Does that mean people are less interested in religion too?

Jack Miles, editor of the new Norton Anthology Of World Religions, tells Terry Gross that he doesn't think so.

I don't put too much stock, you know, in, for example, the fact that more people now check none when asked, in the United States, to state their religion because more people also state Independent when asked for their political party or shrug their shoulders and say, I have no political affiliation. It doesn't mean they don't care about politics. It just means that they don't like being organized into anything. All organizational activity in our country is in a state of kind of decline, I believe.
This seems to be true. Volunteerism, to take one example of organizational activity, has been on the decline in the 21st century. Now only 1 in 4 Americans volunteer in any way.

As Robert Putnam argued in his 2001 book, Bowling Alone, "most Americans no longer spend much time in community organizations -- we've stopped doing committee work, stopped serving as officers and stopped going to meetings. And all this despite rapid increases in education that have given more of us than ever before the skills, the resources and the interests that once fostered civic engagement."

The social change that is currently visible looks, at one level, to be a change in belief. It may be that, in some ways. More critically, though, it seems to be a change in social organization, driven by economic and technological developments. People aren't showing up at county-level political party meetings, but they're posting political commentary to their Facebook walls. And they're not going to church, but they're buying religious bestsellers.