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Pick your own Religious Identity

Historical note:

In the beginning, membership in the Christian faith was based upon personal acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, in particular, belief in his Resurrection from the Dead. Later, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. State religions used the power of the state to compel belief.

After the Protestant Reformation, Europeans lived with religious division. Following the principle that the political ruler chose the religion of his subjects, a person was Protestant or Catholic depending upon the ruler’s faith. Immigrants to America took their religious affiliation with them. Italians and Irish were mainly Roman Catholic, and Scandinavians were Lutheran. Religious affiliation was an important component of ethnic identity.

But, as American society became a “melting pot”, these distinctions tended to fade. Today individuals are exposed to a market place of religious options in which one would choose to identify with a particular denomination or religious institution much as one would identify with a political party. Conceptually, at least, we are back to personal persuasion.

The following newspaper article describes the current state of religious affiliation in the United States.

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Religious Identity not a given

Mobility and exposure to other faiths have had an impact on Americans’ church habits

by Andrea Useem
Religious News service

“When Aurora Turk was growing up in Mexico City, being Catholic was a given. ‘It was taught to me by the nuns at school and my mother at home,’ she recalled. ‘My whole world was Catholic.’

But Turk’s adult life has been marked by religious exploration. Married to a Brooklyn-born Jew, the 38-year-old mother now follows the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian spiritual teacher.

While Turk’s story seems unique, her experience of switching religious identities is a common one for many Americans.

Sixteen percent of Americans have switched their religious identities at some point in their lives, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, one of the largest studies of its kind.

‘People are making more choices in everything, from lifestyle to sexual identity. It’s not surprising if they are making more choices in religion,’ said Peter Berger, professor of sociology and theology at Boston University.

In other words, Berger said, the era when religion was determined solely by accident of birth is over.

Barry Kosmin, coauthor of a book based on the 2001 survey, said ‘more switching is to be expected.’

‘Family and ethnic loyalties - the old glue that maintained intergenerational religious identification - has weakened,’ he said. In addition to moving more frequently, Americans are also more likely to be ‘searching’ for religious truth, often outside their own traditions, wrote Kosmin, who directs the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

The 2001 study showed clear winner and losers in the competition for members: Twice as many Americans left Catholicism as joined the faith, while evangelical Christianity registered a net gain, with more than three times as many people joining than leaving.

The biggest change, however, was registered among Americans who said they had no religious identity at all, increasing from 8 percent of the U.S. population in 1990 to 14 percent in 2001.

The phenomenon can be unnerving for religious leaders, who are vying for ‘customers’ ever more aware of new options, according to Kosmin. Megachurches are successful in part because they actively reach out to potential members, of which there are many in high-mobility suburbs and exurbs, Kosmin wrote in an e-mail interview.

But success in attracting new members doesn’t necessarily translate into success at keeping them, according to Daniel Olson, a sociologist at Indiana University South Bend who studies religious competition.

‘There is a strong relationship between rates of leaving and rates of joining, both for congregations and whole denominations,’ Olson wrote in an e-mail response to questions. The 2001 survey found, for example, that while the Mormons welcomed a relatively large number of converts, an equal number left the faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Buddhists displayed similarly high levels of turnover.

Surprisingly, Olson noted, smaller religious groups are better at recruiting new members.

Carl Blizzard, pastor of the Abundant Life United Pentecostal church in Albert Lea, Minn., said his church is small, with only 300 active members - 90 percent of whom came to Pentecostalism from Lutheran, Catholic, and even Muslim backgrounds.

‘People usually come in first because they are invited by a family member. The church is growing because of personal testimony,’ said Blizzard, son of a Pentecostal preacher.

Berger said encountering other people’s religious beliefs - and perhaps being persuaded by them - is ‘an inevitable part of modernity.’

Berger cited the example of his 6-year-old granddaughter, who holds fascinating theological conversations with a girl across the street.

‘I would say interreligious communication by 6-year-old little girls is more significant than interfaith committees set up by the Vatican,’ he said, ‘because there are many more little girls than there are theology professors.’”

“Religious identity not a given” by Andrea Useem”, Star Tribune, February 17, 2007


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