What Do People Do With Religion

I often link to various reports done by the Pew Research Center about religion, because it’s a good place to get statistics about the state of belief in the United States and across the world. Yet, the questions that tend to be asked in the Pew studies tend to be those that are easily quantifiable or have easy yes/no answers: how often do you attend religious services, do you approve of same-sex marriage,  how often do you read the Bible, etc. As useful as these questions can be in assessing the role religion plays in modern life, they don’t give us much of a picture as to how religion actually functions in most people’s lives.

It’s well known that the United States is the most pious Western nation, with high rates of god-belief:



But the very term “god” is vague, and could potentially refer to anything from the triune god of mainstream Christianity, the strict monotheism of Judaism or Islam,  a belief in Amida Buddha and his “Pure Land,” Shiva, or a pantheist view of the universe as “god.” God can be anything or nothing at all, depending on your definition of the term. I wish there was some way to ask survey participants to define what “god” means to them, but that would probably be too time consuming and introduce even more confusion into the results.  This is why the assertion that a belief in “god” is necessary for good morals/good citizenship is so problematic, as there are as many conceptions of “god” as there are people, with no agreement as to which one is “correct” or “best.” Even people who ostensibly belong to the same religion will not have the same idea about “god”; for example, a parishioner at the LGBT-friendly Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco is going to have a very different picture of the “god” of Catholicism than the members of St. John Cantius, the noted conservotrad/traditionalist parish in Chicago.

Despite the high levels of god-belief in the United States, the role of religious practice in American life is all over the place. As I mentioned in my last post, it’s not uncommon for many people to blow off religious services if they conflict with a sports game. While Protestantism has no “Sunday obligation” to coerce people to show up on Sunday, many conservative Protestants still feel like regular church attendance is necessary to impart a strong Christian identity, especially to young people:



When asked about why they put sports above the Lord’s Day, I suspect many ostensibly conservative Christians would say that Sunday is meant for relaxing, and there’s nothing wrong with using that time for “wholesome” sports. Given the way sports and Christianity are often blended in the South, maybe many of them actually believe that being at a game is equivalent to going to church. They might also say that their “personal relationship with Christ” is such that they don’t need to be in a certain building at a certain time to honor Jesus. This view that religion is an individualistic affair, I believe, is the crux of the problem. The uniquely American belief that salvation is between oneself and Jesus with no communal element not only eliminates the robust communtarianism that led to the Western European social democratic state, but also eliminates the need for a religious community altogether. If one’s “personal relationship with Christ” is really all that matters in terms of salvation, then you can spend your Sundays at a football game or even at a strip club, because only you can assess whether you have that all important “personal relationship” with Jesus. To me, this kind of attitude privatizes religion far more than modern secularization, since it assumes that only Jesus can pass judgement on your beliefs or behavior. When religion becomes a “personal relationship” with a deity, it becomes hyper-subjective, and removed from any kind of inquiry from an outside observer. This is the very definition of a modern, or dare I even say post-modern, approach to religion.

These days, almost any activity can have a religious or “spiritual” quality ascribed to them: cooking, martial arts, playing music, painting, stamp collecting, etc. “Smells and bells,” stained glass windows, gospel music, and fiery preaching are no longer necessary to have a “religious experience.” The so-called “mindfulness movement” seems to be about creating “religious experiences” without religion or even any kind of discernible spiritual framework.

I think secularization is about more than how prevalent religion is in a certain society, but about how religion is being lived and used in that society. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church has returned to a place of prominence in post-Soviet Russia, with church building happening at a breakneck pace and Putin , but it doesn’t appear that the Russian people are especially pious:

Over the past two decades, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been an upsurge in affiliation with Orthodox Christianity in Russia.1 Between 1991 and 2008, the share of Russian adults identifying as Orthodox Christian rose from 31% to 72%, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of three waves of data (1991, 1998 and 2008) from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) – a collaboration involving social scientists in about 50 countries. During the same period, the share of Russia’s population that does not identify with any religion dropped from 61% to 18%.

There also has been a modest increase in some measures of religious commitment. For example, the share of Russian adults who said they are at least “somewhat” religious rose from 11% in 1991 to 54% in 2008. And the portion of adults who said they believe in God rose from 38% to 56% over the same period.2

But for most Russians, the return to religion did not correspond with a return to church. Across all three waves of ISSP data, no more than about one-in-ten Russians said they attend religious services at least once a month. The share of regular attenders (monthly or more often) was 2% in 1991, 9% in 1998 and 7% in 2008. This suggests that although many more Russians now freely identify with the Orthodox Church or other religious groups, they may not be much more religiously observant than they were in the recent past, at least in terms of attendance at religious services.


While Russians may be identifying as Christians more and more, they do not seem to be any more inclined to go to church, pray, or engage in god-belief than they were during the late Soviet period. The Russian Orthodox Church may be flaunting its new wealth and power, but it’s not bringing bodies inside the churches or inspiring more Russian to pray. To fully examine the role of Orthodoxy in Putin’s Russia would require looking not just at how many churches are being built or the role of the Patriarch in political affairs, but to see how Russians understand what being an Orthodox Christian means. I suspect that many of them probably think of being Orthodox as part of Russian identity, but not something that requires too much work (i.e., prayer, going to divine liturgy) on their part. If asked what influences their worldview and decision making process, I doubt many Russians would mention the Orthodox Church.

Unlike the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, where the Catholic church was the primary engine of Western European society, there are many political and cultural actors that influence our behavior today: newspapers, authors, reality shows, bloggers, Internet message boards, social media, educational institutions, etc. Religious institutions are simply one political actor out of many in a very crowded marketplace of ideas, and they are struggling to make themselves relevant when there are so many competing ideas out there. Secularization studies need to spend more time examining how religion, spirituality, and even atheism are embodied in every day life, especially the moral decision-making process.