As secularism continues to become more deeply established in Western Europe, religious leaders look with wonder at the apparent success of Christianity in the United States.
A new study suggests that Americans are shopping around for their faith
Now there is fresh evidence that the pick-and-choose attitude to religion that is sometimes blamed by church leaders for emptying pews in Europe, could be the mechanism by which religion has flourished in America.
A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that the “free market” in faith in the US is more active than ever with almost one in every two adults in the country changing their religious affiliation at least once in their lives.
Instead of the relatively few denominations - and large dominant churches - found in much of Europe, the US has a profusion of churches catering for a wide range of spiritual needs and beliefs.
The competition between them - and therefore the wish to please - is arguably far greater than that between different Anglican parish churches.
But the Pew study also suggests that the increasingly restless movement between denominations is feeding an exodus from religion altogether in America.
*’‘A lot of the unaffiliated seem to be OK with religion in the abstract…’’ *
John Green, Pew Forum
In a study of 35,000 people in 2007, Pew found only 7% reporting being brought up without a faith. However, more than double that number said they currently belonged to no religion.
But even the leavers are susceptible to religious marketing it seems.
John Green, who teaches at the University of Akron and speaks for the Pew Forum described them as “dissatisfied consumers”.
He said only four percent had become had become atheist or agnostic.
“A lot of the unaffiliated seem to be OK with religion in the abstract, it’s just the religion they were involved in bothered them or they disagreed with it.”
So the market might contain lessons for European churches competing against the attractions of a purely secular lifestyle. The Pew study suggests that many who leave their childhood faith return to it later on, and a slim majority of those brought up without a faith eventually join one.
There is another article on the same page titled ‘Atheists in Foxholes.’
Despite the apparent weakening of church membership in the United States, the American government is probably some way from following the Netherlands in appointing army chaplains who don’t believe in God.
Dutch troops have an atheist chaplain, unlike British soldiers. There are thirty humanists serving in the Dutch armed forces. It is a relatively small military served nevertheless by 90 Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy, two Hindu pandits, two imams and two rabbis.
Eline, a thirty year old air force captain, is serving in southern Afghanistan with 2,000 Dutch soldiers. She is clear about her atheism. “I definitely do not believe in a Christian or Muslim god or that it was a great spirit that has created this world. I don’t know how we got here.” **There are no humanists among the British padres serving in southern Afghanistan. **The Ministry of Defence says there is no demand. People are invited to say what religion they belong to when they sign up, but a tiny number - a press officer suggested about ten - had said they were atheists.
‘‘I am looking for meaning in things, but not necessarily a plan or a solution.’’ Eline
Eline - whose family name cannot be published by Dutch military regulations - completed a four year university course in “God Science”. She tackles similar themes to her religious counterparts at the weekly meetings she holds at the base in Kandahar.
They include forgiveness and how to cope with being parted from families at home in Holland. Eline - who also presides over memorial services for soldiers who have died - helps troops cope with being part of a war, and teaches them how to let go. She says she and other chaplains differ mostly in their use of ritual, but otherwise it’s a very similar job, talking to soldiers about everything that happens to them. “I am looking for meaning in things, but not necessarily a plan or a solution. Just meaning.”