Paganism and the Decline of "Religion"

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Back in March the BBC reported on a study that predicted the extinction of religion in nine countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. The mathematical model used to make this prediction is very similar to one used to predict the extinction of languages. The idea is simple: as the population of religiously non-affiliated individuals grow, their preferences start to become attractive to more and more people.

Pagans dance in "nonreligious" Estonia. Photo: BBC.

“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona.”It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility. […]  In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.” The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the “non-religious” category. They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them. And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.

This trend isn’t isolated to Europe, a new study by Duke Divinity School professor Mark Chaves, a specialist in the sociology of religion, says that religion in the United States is “softening”.

In “American Religion: Contemporary Trends,” author Mark Chaves argues that over the last generation or so, religious belief in the U.S. has experienced a “softening” that effects everything from whether people go to worship services regularly to whom they marry. Far more people are willing to say they don’t belong to any religious tradition today than in the past, and signs of religious vitality may be camouflaging stagnation or decline. “Reasonable people can disagree over whether the big picture story is one of essential stability or whether it’s one of slow decline,” said Chaves. “Unambiguously, though, there’s no increase.”

Another sociologist, Bradley Wright, notes that “it’s not random who’s leaving churches, as Christians affiliated more through the Republican Party, liberal, marginal churchgoers became offended and left.” At his blog, Wright points out that religion in American society has become increasingly polarized, with the people who find religion only “somewhat” important (you know, the “Christmas and Easter Christians”) a dwindling population.

“The last two years *may* represent a change in the importance of religion. While the most devout religious people (i.e., “extremely important) hold on to their beliefs, there is a significant drop in those who religion as “very” important, with these people appearing to transition to viewing it as only “somewhat” important. It’s too early to tell, however, whether this is a robust long-term trend. If it is, it could portend further polarization—as the middle ground of religious importance disappears.”

Most telling is the opinion of Chaves, who, according to the Associated Press, doesn’t think these trends “can be reversed by ramped-up evangelism or other conscious decisions by religious groups.” Now it should be noted that people with “no religion” aren’t without religious beliefs or ideas, a large number claim to believe in a divine power, and a recent study of the religiously unaffiliated  in the Pacific Northwest showed that many of them had adopted an informal sort of nature worship.

“According to the just-published “Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia.” … a lot of these “nones” in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches. Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia.” “This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions,” he says. The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: “nature spirituality,” such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.”

So when we are talking about the decline of “religion” in the West, what we really seem to be talking about is a decline in traditional “churched” congregations. These “unchurched” individuals aren’t becoming atheists or religion-free agnostics, but are instead building their own spiritual practices, or turning to decentralized open movements like modern Paganism. Nor is that a trend isolated to the United States, as a recent BBC piece focusing on religion in Estonia, the world’s “least religious” country, will tell you.

“It is one in a chain of events that led the majority of Estonians away from God, but that does not mean they do not believe in anything at all. About 300km from Tallinn I journey to the forest to meet a group of nature lovers – nature worshippers you might call them. “We are pagan,” says Aigar Piho, father of eight children from the village of Rouge in southern Estonia. Sitting on a log in a forest clearing he tells me: “Our god is in nature. You must take time, sit down and listen.” Like many Estonians Aigar is spiritual. He defines his religion as Maausk – a form of Estonian nature spirituality – in which the trees and earth are cherished objects that possess power. Aigar says his place of worship is the forest yet with neither ceremony nor routine nor religious text, it is hard to say it is an organised religion.”

Sounds pretty religious to me! But I would say that, wouldn’t I? In any case, the idea that people who have “lost” religion will turn to Paganism, the New Age, self-constructed spiritualities, and nature-based religions isn’t just wishful thinking on my part, just listen to Bron Taylor, author of “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future”.

“Where this cognitive shift has been made, traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings.”

It should be noted that these trends, while relatively fast-moving on a societal level, aren’t likely to produce massive shifts in power structures or political allegiances in the near future. Pagans, nature-worshipers, and the “spiritual but not religious” demographics will still have to deal with increasingly polarized mainstream religions fearful of a post-Christian future. That said, if you are looking for the hopeful note in all the stories lately about extreme and increasingly reactionary trends among the dominant monotheisms, here’s your light at the end of the tunnel. The promise of a more Pagan tomorrow.