We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Religiosity is Complex, Church Decline Less So

Not really intending to, I seem to have gotten myself into another brief series of postings on the ever-pressing question of church decline.  There are three elements or aspects of this issue that need to be separated from each other: (1) organized religion; (2) religiosity more generally; and (3) spirituality.  While the distinction between religiosity and spirituality is a fuzzy one at best, there is a difference.  Spirituality has to do with an inner sense of non-material, meta-physical realities that somehow impinge on one's life.  A person can be spiritual without being religious.  Religion involves practicing certain activities, such as prayer or meditation, that seek to express spirituality overtly.  Religion usually involves others.  When this practice of religion becomes pro forma or selfishly self-serving, one can be religious without being spiritual.

This is complex stuff as can be seen by an Al Jazerra English posting by Ali Reza Eshraghi entitled, "Iranians under the Islamic regime: more or less religious?"  He argues that the current state of Islamic practice in Iran is complex and that both the nation's authorities and critics are not willing to acknowledge its true state, esp. among young people.  What evidence there is suggests that in the face of governmental pressure to practice Islam and resistance to that pressure by its critics, the nation has remained as religious as it was at the time of the Iranian Revolution, but young people in particular practice their religion in unconventional ways.  They mix lipstick with prayer and sexual petting with devotion.  Quoting an Iranian sociologist, Eshraghi claims that Iranians are becoming more secular, more modern but not losing their religiosity.  He concludes that the, "Iranian people are going their own way and are playing in a ring of so-called contradictions; they remember some things and forget others; they tightly cling to dogmas and easily let go of others. Instead of overemphasizing the internal homogeneity of religion, they have turned to communal conformity. And this has resulted in a new form of religiosity which one could even call functionalist."

So, let me come back to the thought that for all of the study that has gone into church decline in America things are still murky at best.  Decline is real.  But the implications of current trends for the future are unclear.  We are not Iran, but we are also not Europe.  In various places and ways, committed Christian folk are working on new, more functional forms of American church life.  Time will tell what it all means.