Michael Gerson has an opinion piece over at the Washington Post, in which he describes what he feels to be a declining faith by the American people in their religious institutions. Although he makes some interesting points, I suspect that the changing demographics he highlights have more to do with the rejection of theology masquerading as religion, than a rejection of religion itself.
If you take a historical view of theology, it is one of both the segregation and diffusion of ideas: segregated by the fact that most people were only ever taught the dominant theology of their locale, and diffused through exposure to other theologies at the edges; where appealing ideas were subsequently absorbed and modified to fit into the local mythological structure. However, the vast majority of people had no idea other theologies existed, or if they did, they were treated as heretical to their own.
Note that I am making a distinction between religion – the basic belief that the world is bigger than you may be able to currently comprehend – and theology – the attempt by certain groups of people to create a system of dogma sitting on top of that belief. Theology = religion + dogma.
So, for a long time in human history, people in segregated groups were only taught their specific flavor of theology, and everyone else was considered wrong; usually as a means of stirring up hate against others (see the Crusades, WWII, various anti-Buddhist purges by the Chinese, and any of the vastly numerous other examples). And this strategy still exists today, with the demonization of Islam, amongst others.
However, there seems to be a convergence of mutually reinforcing memes today that is driving people out of the arms of some favorite theology and back into the fold of simple religion. One is the vastly greater movement of people from one locale to another. It is no longer a simple thing for the local hegemony to impose a singular theology when people are coming and going. Second, is the Internet, through which people (and especially the young) are exposed to many different – and divergent – ideas. Third is a large drop-off of in attendance of the centers of dogma – for various reasons – and a subsequent lack of strong authority to help people “sort things out.” And, finally, a fundamental loss of faith in institutions in general.
Combine all these together, and you have a population that is being exposed to wildly different theological viewpoints, with little or no respected guidance to tell them “right” from “wrong,” and who are, therefore, left largely to their own devices to choose, modify, or create a theology that works for them. And, increasingly, that theology is reverting to the simple, religious understanding that “the world is bigger than me.”
So, when Mr. Gerson is castigating those “men and women who would rather sleep in or play golf on a Sunday morning,” he is not railing against a loss of religion, merely a loss of faith in his own particular brand of authoritative theology; specifically one which requires people to get out of bed on Sunday mornings for their weekly dose of dogma. Count me as one who believes that the more theology we can remove from religion, the better.