Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated: Threat, Opportunity, or Not So New? – Post 1 of 2


In her New York Times opinion  article “One Nation Under God?” (Dec. 22, 2012), Molly Worthen writes: “Today’s spiritual independents are not unprecedented. What is new is their increasing visibility.”  A history professor, Worthen gives us some history:

In the Middle Ages, for example, ordinary people often skipped church and had a feeble grasp of basic Christian dogma. Many priests barely understood the Latin they chanted — and many parishes lacked any priest at all. Bishops complained about towns that used their cathedrals mainly as indoor markets or granaries.

            In 1584, well into the Protestant Reformation, she notes, “census takers in Antwerp discovered that the city had a larger proportion of ‘nones’ than 21st-century America: a full third of residents claimed no religious affiliation.”

Worthen’s article is in response to politically right-wing Christian assertions that the “rise of the unaffiliated” in the United States is an unprecedented sign that America has lost its Christian moorings.   According to such right-wing arguments, our new lack of piety and morality is the reason God is letting bad things happen to us.

Worthen  explains, however,  that while church affiliation (i.e. membership) has always been a high proportion of U.S. population, participation has not been as high, even during the perceived golden era when Baby Boomers and their parents were driving church growth and expansion of church facilities:

 Rates of church attendance have never been as sterling as the Christian Right’s fable of national decline suggests. Before the Civil War, regular attendance probably never exceeded 30 percent, rising to a high of 40 percent around 1965 and declining to under 30 percent in recent years — even as 77 percent still identify as Christians and 69 percent say they are “very” or “moderately” religious, according to a 2012 Gallup survey.

As Worthen says:  “We know… that the good old days were not so good after all.”

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