Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Hidden Norms in Religious Flux

Being part of a survey team conducting a survey of active and lapsed Catholics in the early 1980s prepared me to deal with a today's news stories about a Pew study on religious change in the United States. Let me deal with two things I learned back then that make sense now.

Keep in mind that most of these surveys can only measure affiliation through a tangible behavior that is deemed to denote an inner disposition. While scientologists claim to have machines that can measure advancement in their religion, social scientists do not have a soulmeter of any kind.

So, for the most part, the sociology of religion describes behavior of churchgoers, often in rations that are not doctrinally correct. For example, for the study of Catholics we called someone "active" if they went to church on Sunday at least four times a year, not counting major holidays or family occasions.

This is well below the canonical obligation of Sunday Mass, but it is a behavior indication of a certain degree of engagement. Indeed, in most predominantly Catholic countries perhaps a tenth of all Catholics go to Mass on a regular Sunday; in the United States, a survey in the 1990s found attendance as high as 45 to 55%, depending on how you counted it.

OK, my insights now.

First, it is statistically normal for people between the ages of 15 to 30 to "drop out" of the organized religion in which they were raised. This I learned from sociologist Dean Hoge, who led the research teams and wrote the book, long out of print, about the study.

"Normal" to a sociologist only means that a behavior does not deviate significantly from the social average. It doesn't mean it is good or bad. There are many reasons why disaffiliation during adolescence and early adulthood might occur in societies in which this period involves a prolonged crisis.

The various Anabaptist denominations (Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, etc.) developed a detour around this by decreeing that they would not baptize or affiliate infants. Indeed, most Anabaptists don't formally join their churches before marriage.

This leads to the second interesting insight: most people's religious affiliation has very little to do with philosophy or theology.

Most plainly, I learned from interviewing people who had returned to the faith, the pattern was that once they got married, or even more importantly had children, many drifted back to churchgoing. It was almost as if they wanted to give their children something similar to rebel against.

Significantly, also, very, very few people referred to conversion or returning to faith as a process involving study and thought, or the reading of certain works. Most converts wanted to marry a Catholic.

At the time, I found this profoundly disappointing. I had been involved in the conversion of two people who had wrestled with ideas, read and discussed books with me, written lengthy letters with questions and concerns. They were modern St. Augustines, turning from one view to another with thoughtful deliberation.

Even in my questioning of religious faith, I have always felt the theological and philosophical issues were important. The idea of changing to get married or to pass on certain conventions to children seemed and still seems very hollow.

This is why I find the Pew study less than interesting. Yes, 28% of U.S. adults have changed from the church of their fathers (or mothers), more in the younger years. Given the pattern of social research, I doubt they were asked too deeply why.


Anonymous said...

My own return was as long a prolonged crisis as my leaving. Part of me was reluctant throughout even as I advanced. In my own way it involved serious study which resulted in earth-moving, body-shaken change. It wasn't an overnight process. Even though I was technically a Catholic from infancy, I identify with "conversion" with all my heart, mind and soul.

[When I attended classes at a Reform synagogue (in order to learn, only) I was amazed at the "conversions" of the Christian-to-Jewish spouses of the inter-faith couples. As sincere as the spouses were, it appeared that they converted because it was the right thing to do for the sake of their marriage. My private conclusion was that they didn't really believe in Jesus or Christianity, in the first place and secondly that it was a head-trip for them only. (maybe I was wrong and they truly embraced everything Judaic.)]

At the same time, when I looked at the many couples within my own denomination of Catholicism where one spouse converted...especially those right after WWII (mass conversions), many were not really convinced or evangelized, but were converted because they "had" to.

So, faith was weaken, Catholic marriages weakened and we have the fall out today.

On the other hand, there is honesty in this generation's estrangement: it is less willfully blind, perhaps less hypocritical, they are willing to accept excommunication because one can't fight Vatican CityHall, or sometimes the parish pastor.

Since my early conversion of a few decades ago, I've progressed to the mind-boggled stage where many convictions have flipped. Today, the Church is still important to me because in its physical-parish form it gives floor, walls and sacred space that connects with the ages, the universal and God. But I am no longer so connected to the "community" that is deemed so important. I started out in solitary and am pretty much in solitary.

Today, I probably have more in common with the excommunicated and exiled than with the Pope and his priests. Many of the exes are as principled and have more integrety than those in the pew.

The Church doesn't really know me* and the Church doesn't really care, no matter what the studies say.

*me=most people

Regarding your comments:

I admire the Anabaptist tradition of later initiation...the Amish with their allowed "sowing of seeds" time. If I could influence a reform in my own denomination I'd lean toward this.

Also, I'd say most people's political affiliation, which is the public face of one's beliefs (or lack) has very little to do with theology.


Geneviève said...

As our new president who is a Bushophile or a Bushomaniac wanted to follow his model and claimed that religion is the most important, he was wrong since he used then religion as an instrument and not in itself. He was doubly wrong since he wanted then to be popular in a traditionally Catholic country, while being divorced twice and re-married, he forgot that what is not a problem in Bush's America, is shocking for French traditionalists.

If there is no mean to measure faith, I don't understand Cyprian ( your previous post) 's logic. In the first case, he decided that words and acts don't matter but only faith matters, and in the second case that words and faith do not matter but acts matter to prove it.

And according to your Saint patron's disciple, since heretics cannot convert rightly, when you converted two people around you, were you appropriate to do it since you were kind of an heretic, even without being aware of it ?

It is true that if everything is relative even the fact that everything is relative is relative and the absolute may exist as it may not.

Anonymous said...

"were you appropriate to do it since you were kind of an heretic, even without being aware of it?"

I think most thinking, religious, Catholics have a good dose of heresy in their faith. *Even among the anawim.

It is the product of the struggle between heresy & orthodoxy that advances us, isn't it? We in the Church when we look back at any age gone by, know we "ain't the same" as we used to be.


*An old woman I know who'd buried many babies in unsacred ground early in the last century, when the pompous Monsignor entered her death-room scolding her into confession, she told him to get out. She *knew* her babies weren't condemned even though it was Magisterial teaching.