In Steve Bruce’s 1995 book, ‘Religion in modern Britain: from cathedral to cult’, he wrote about how the British were not becoming any less ‘religious’ but were instead moving to a place where they picked and choosed the parts of ‘religion’ that appealed to them most. Dubbed the pick’n’mix approach to religiosity, it was seen to herald a move away from institutionalised forms of religion to those that were more diversified and increasingly privatised.
Others have since picked up on this shift. Jeremy Hardy for instance in The Guardian back in 2001 offered a more cynical reading:
…people who have generally humane and just ideas frequently select the better bits of their chosen creed while being somewhat embarrassed about the bits that involve minor offenders being stoned to death and women being forced to menstruate outdoors
Underpinning this shift is the view – whether rightly or wrongly – that religion can be adjusted to fit your lifestyle and so become more reflective of our increasingly consumerist approach to most things in life. A clear benefit to some; an anathema to the more devout.
Whilst the notion of pick’n’mix seems to have been widely accepted as a concept or idea, little research has been put forward to substantiate it. However research published in the US this week goes some way to evidencing this.
The survey by the Pew Forum, entitled ‘Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.’, found that 44% of American adults have switched religious affiliations or abandoned ties to a specific religion. Described in the LA Times as being ‘fickle’, the findings suggest that Americans adults change religious affiliation early and often.
The reasons for this differ widely, dependent upon the origin as much as the destination of the convert. The group that has grown the most in recent years are those that in the UK at least would be described as having ‘no religion’. Of these, approximately 4 out of 10 say they unaffiliated from their religion because they did not believe in God or the teachings of most religions. Others left their religion because they believed religious people to be hypocritical or judgmental. Very few say they left their religion because they believed that modern science proved religion to be mere superstition.
In terms of churn, whilst 56% of the population continue to belong to the same religion to the one they were born into, 1 in 6 (16%) say there was a time in their life when they had a different faith than they have now. Combined with the 44% of the public that currently espouses a religion different than their childhood faith, this means that roughly half of the US adult population has changed religion at some point in their life.
As regards those that have changed religious affiliation more than once, roughly two-thirds of those who were raised Catholic or Protestant but are now unaffiliated have changed faiths at least twice in their life, including those who have changed within the unaffiliated tradition (e.g. from atheist to agnostic). The same is true for roughly half of former Catholics who have become Protestant, people who have changed denominational families within Protestantism and people who have become affiliated with a religion after having been raised unaffiliated.
The theory is that people now feel able to choose their religion or at least the parts that appeal most to their personal beliefs/ values/ morals etc. As we become increasingly consumerist as a society and as the authority of the religious institutions/ organisations wanes, it is likely that the ‘churn’ identified in the US will be replicated elsewhere.
What it does highlight however is that despite the general view some 30-40 years ago that religion would within the foreseeable future die, this has clearly not occurred. Instead, religion – maybe more appropriately spirituality – has taken on newer, more dynamic and possibly more choice-driven characteristics.
Whilst the context and conditions of the US and UK are different, it would be fair to suggest that as Habermas has argued, society is becoming increasingly post-secular: where religion is vigorously continuing but within a continually secularising environment. Religion is not, despite continued protestations from some, going away let alone dying.
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.