An interesting recent article in The Huffington Post charts what it calls the “notable decline in religiosity worldwide.” A few regions are standouts, in particular the once unshakeably Catholic Ireland. In a 2005 poll 69% of Irish people identified themselvse as religious, but today this has plummeted by 22 points to 47%. Undoubtedly the primary factor here is the sin and corruption of the Catholic Church, though the many copies of The God Delusion that have flown of the shelves of Kennys didn’t help matters.
This research is charting the shift of something, but what exactly is not clear since the key term “religious” is highly disputed. There may be declining numbers of people who will identify themselves as “religious” on a survey, but what’s the significance of that fact? I suspect, for instance, that many more would still happily call themselves “spiritual”, a fact which perhaps suggests that “religious” has some sort of connotations with institution, authority and (sadly enough) pedophiles and corruption, that other terms like “spiritual” do not.
If my intuition is correct then it may be that the trend away from “religiosity” is in fact reflective of a general trend away from association with, and submission to, authoritarian institutions.
One problem, however, is that it is readily possible to conceive of an individual becoming more religious (at least by many intuitive measures of what it means to be religious) even as he abandons fidelity to recognized “religious” instuititions and begins to self-identify as an atheist. And with that I present to you the case of Hypothetical Sean (or Hypo-Sean for short).
The Case of Hypothetical Sean
Hypo-Sean used to go to the Catholic Church for mass several times a year (but not more than several times a year) and to confession around once a year. Hypo-Sean didn’t think much about faith however. His parents had always been Catholic and so he too always identified himself as Catholic. He knew the liturgy of the mass — it had been drilled into him since he was a youth — but it can’t be said that he’d ever, like Wesley, had the experience of a heart strangely warmed. The closest he ever got was drinking hot buttered rum with the boys in the back alley.
When Hypo-Sean saw the 2005 survey he checked off “religious” because, well, that’s just what you do.
Over the last seven years Hypo-Sean has grown increasingly disgusted with the stories he’s read about the church in Ireland. Then last summer he learned that his childhood friend Brian had been abused by the local priest when he was a child. That was it. Hypo-Sean shook the dust off his proverbial heels and never looked back. He was done with church. He was done with the religious life.
Since then Hypo-Sean has started attending the monthly meetings of a local free thought society. Every meeting includes a speaker, with hearty discussion and debate over a pint of Guinness. Hypo-Sean has since agreed to be the webmaster for the group’s fledgling web page. The group is devoted to understanding the universe through science. Hypo-Sean now spends all his free time reading about science and the joy of scientific discovery. He’s read with intoxication the works of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, Stephen Weinberg and Carl Sagan. Hypo-Sean now calls himself a “naturalist” and he regularly gets into spirited debates with members of the Christian club at the local university. When Hypo-Sean read The God Delusion he felt the shackles fall off his wrists. It was like he was reborn. And he went straight out to Kennys and bought a dozen copies to give out to friends and acquaintances.
“Oh here comes Hypo-Sean,” they say with an eye roll, “Here to talk about science and reason again.”
Hypo-Sean found himself filling out another survey just a little while ago. In this one he gladly checked off “non-religious” on the survey. And as he did so he felt a strange comforting sensation, almost like a heart being strangely warmed.