Abandoned churchAn abandoned Methodist church in Gary, Indiana. (photo: slworking2/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

The scientist Lord Martin Rees is an atheist who calls himself a “tribal Christian” because he participates in church services to have social and cultural connection to his Anglican brethren. But recent research is showing that, in some countries, the flock is moving in the opposite direction — out of churches and toward affiliating with other non-believers. And, possibly for the same reason, that calls some “tribal Christians” to a pew each Sunday.

According to researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Arizona, people in nine countries — Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland — say they have no religious affiliation, a trend that continues upward. Researchers compare the shift to replacing one’s native language.

I heard the same themes in a documentary called The Linguists, in which two researchers traveled to Siberia, India, and Bolivia to capture recordings of obscure languages on the brink of extinction. The older, less-spoken languages were replaced when they became socially undesirable or financially limiting. They would “trade up” in a sense to be able to integrate with the more popular language of a nearby majority.

Richard Wiener, one of the study’s authors, says, for example, that “there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there’s some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not.”

What about this analogy he makes? How does not identifying with religion serve people in a way that checking the “religious” box didn’t before? And if the social utility argument holds true, why wouldn’t believers in less popular faith systems simply join larger more mainstream churches/traditions like megachurches who are reporting huge growth?

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While equating religious affiliation with language has some helpful parallels, I believe that religious connection is more fluid. While one's language is deeply connected with brain development, family structure, environment and communication, religious life can be changed rather easily throughout life.

I, too, see a large number of people making that fluid choice more often in the last two generations. What will happen in the future isn't clear, but I have confidence that the search for and experience of God will continue, whether it's in the form we have known for the last few generations or not. 

The use of that specific picture is not really balanced journalism. Take a good look at Gary, Indiana altogether. More than just the Methodist church has been abandoned there!  If you go to other more prosperous regions of the country, I can assure you those churches are well maintained and FULL on Sundays!

Where and how are the non-believers congregating/connecting with one another?  I want to go to there.

 Probably to a Unitarian Universalist congregation, local chapter of the American Humanist Association, or perhaps to GoDaddy to rent a domain name and create a website. I did the latter in 1995.
Bruce Robinson

I think one also has to take into consideration the phenomena of religious extremists and the politicizing of religion, both can be very limiting factors in society. And haven't there always been "believers" who had some sense of religious affilition in order to simply conform? Faith and spirituality are tremendously important for me and I don't go to any pains to either hide it or shout it at the top of my lungs in the town square. The situation seems to me to be another example of individual opportunism, (at least in our western society), taking precedence over community and tolerance, just look at the societal trends of people forming their own "communities" consisting chiefly of people who believe and act the same way as they do.

This may seem like a minor point, but can we please get away from the term "non-believer"?  While it may be convenient shorthand, it suggests that non-religious or atheist people (two groups often conflated in the popular media) don't have moral beliefs.  Perhaps more significantly, the term suggests that there is a god but that "non-believers" don't believe in that god, putting non-religious and atheist people in one group and ALL believers in another.

I would expect the producers of On Being (who I respect and admire greatly) to (a) understand that people who self-identify as non-religious or atheist often (though not always) hold deep moral convictions about their lives and the world around them and (b) be a little more nuanced with the language of belief systems than the average journalist.

So what should you call them?  I don't necessary disagree with you, but you did not offer an alternative.  When most people you the term "non-believer," they are using it simply to refer to a group of people who are identified by what they do not believe as opposed to what they believe.  I agree that "non-believers" often hold deep moral convictions.  Nevertheless, religious peoples (Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc.) are identifiable because of their "shared" moral beliefs.  If "non-believers" had a shared moral identity, we would refer to them based on that identity.  The lack of identity requires us to refer to them in reference to people who have a shared religious beliefs.

My point is:  there is no malice behind the term.

I'm so glad you replied to this comment - thank you.  My point was not to ascribe malice to the author of the blog entry nor to criticize the entry's larger point - I apologize if it appeared that way.  Finding alternatives to the term is not my intent - my point is that non-believer is a vague, broad-brush term which is not descriptive of the people for which it is used (nor, for that matter, does it describe well its suggested opposite, believers - see the 'religious-but-not-spiritual' category).

My view is that people who are non-religious or atheist or spiritual-but-not-religious fall on the same spectrum (or plane) as people who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist and are not, in my view, a separate category as the term suggests.  We all have a belief system, whether or not it is a religion and whether or not we've made a conscious choice about it.  Though it is a very human thing to do, I don't think we need to define people by what they aren't.  What do we really mean when we describe people as 'believers' anyways?  If we're purely talking about a belief in God (which I think, most of the time, we are), that is a gross oversimplification that washes out an awful lot of what goes into one's belief system (such as moral views, contemplative practice, or devotional ritual).  To be labelled 'religious' (i.e. a believer) does one have to believe in a god?  I'm actually fairly religious, but I believe there is no god (I am a practicing Buddhist - Buddhism has no god).  So where does that leave people like me?

I have noticed people who are directed by their mentors to not involve themselves with things that will not benefit them in a socially progressive fashion. This is more true for young people who tend to be motivated by trends. I have seen the opposite in older people who have found upon reflection, when they have had to confront challenges and suffering over their life experience, following trends will not meet the deeper wants and needs of the self. When I have looked into Seminary for myself recently, I was told by most that it is older people who are in ever increasing numbers coming in search of a religious life.

As I read this I, too, found myself wondering what was meant by the terms believer and non-believer.  Just what is it you have to believe in to be a believer and what don't you believe in to be catagorized as a non-believer?  I have the same difficulty with the word Christianity.  The origin of the word appears to have come from the word Christ, so one would suppose it is based on the teachings of Christ.  But the beliefs and doctrines of many Christian churches vary drastically based, one would suppose, on how they interpret and accept the Bible.  As my "religious/Christian" beliefs have evolved it is becoming difficult for me to answer the question, Are you a Christian?  I want to say, How do you define Christian?

I think the comparison with language change is quite apt. If you look at how Islam spread in Central Asia in the 7th and 8th century, which began a slow, five to eight century long process of relgious change, you see that the economic and social benefits of Islam won out eventually, though other religions lasted in the region for centuries. Christians are now forming community in other ways though too, and though the visible church-on-every- street corner phenonmemon may now look different, there are still vast communities of christians linking up and forming community with one another across the world. The internet and facebook have a huge role in this. I found a group of very sophisticated Orthodox christians online and joined the church and am now part of what I call Ortho-nation online. It's weird. So I would respond to the last sentence in the piece by saying this is indeed happening. The phenonmenon extends well beyond facebook and the net too to things happening on the ground.