Being Religious in the 21st Century

Organized religion is losing numbers. So says a Pew study released today. There has been a nearly 8% drop in the number of people in America calling themselves Christian since 2007, the last year a poll was taken. Those who answered ‘none’ to a question about religious affiliation increased by 6%. As Forward editor Jane Eisner put it:

If the “nones” were a religious denomination, they would be the second largest in America, just after evangelical Christians.

Seeing these figures about the decline in religious affiliation brings to mind the Pew Research Center report last year of a similar decline of affiliated Jews. Aside from Orthodox Jewry whose numbers have risen, the members of other denominations are either shrinking (Conservative), or redefining themselves (Reform) in order to retain their numbers.

Interestingly the more liberal the denomination the more it is shrinking. The more religiously conservative the denomination the more it is growing. Hence, the formerly dominant mainline Protestant Churches are losing numbers as is the formerly dominant Conservative Judaism is losing numbers (The word ‘Conservative’ is misleading in that Conservative Jews tend to be both politically and religiously liberal). Meanwhile Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews are increasing.

I am not all that surprised at these numbers. The more one adheres to the fundamental principles of their faith, the more likely they are to retain it. That religious belief is declining in this country is reflected in the change of attitude towards gay marriage. A majority of Americans now approve of that. Despite the fact that it is against the principles of both Christianity and Judaism. Principles sourced in the Bible. The very idea of gay marriage makes the statement that a homosexual lifestyle is just as valid as a heterosexual lifestyle. Needless to say the Bible does not approve of a gay lifestyle and therefore does not give its imprimatur to gay marriage. And yet the majority of the country approves of it. In other words the majority of mainline protestants have basically rejected the views of the bible. Contrast that with Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews that oppose both the gay lifestyle and gay marriage.

The question is why? Why has there been a decline in religious affiliation? There are many reasons. Probably a lot more than I can imagine.

Let me speculate a bit. Belief in God in an era where so many things can now be explained through science makes it difficult to believe in a Supernatural Being that runs the world. Things that in the past had no explanation other than God was doing it (like lightening) are now scientifically understood phenomena. The origins of the universe are now better understood scientifically. Add to that the inability to see God or detect any direct connection between Him and events taking place here on earth and you end up with a healthy dose of skepticism. Things formally explained by religion now have an equally persuasive explanation in science. Thus eliminating the need to believe in God. Indeed the vast majority of scientists are probably atheists.

And then there are those people who have not properly been taught the purpose of religion. I can’t speak for Christianity. But in Judaism the purpose is strictly to serve God. Often I will here someone that left Orthodoxy say that Judaism didn’t speak to them. They didn’t feel it was a good fit to their worldview. Well, that is exactly where they went wrong. Judaism is not designed to be God in service to man. It is designed to be man in service to God. We observe Halacha because that is what God wants of the Jewish people. We do not serve God because it makes us feel good… or even more spiritual. That is secondary to the main goal.

Conservative and Reform Judaism tend to focus more on what religion can do for you. And sees much of its primary focus on Tikun HaOlam, which they interpret strictly to mean social justice. As such these movements tend to get involved with worthwhile liberal causes. Like the civil rights movement of the sixties. And gay rights of our day. Working for these causes makes one feel like they are really contributing to the building up of the world and making it a better place. But then why must you be Jewish to achieve that? Why bother with the label Conservative or Reform Jew? Working for any form of human rights is not a particularly Jewish cause. It is a humanist cause. One does not have to be Jewish or even believe in God to work for social justice.

One final point. Even though Orthodoxy is growing, it is no secret that there are more Orthodox Jews leaving observance than ever before. For a variety of reasons. There are probably as many reasons as there are dropouts from Orthodoxy. Just to mention a few that come to mind:

Some have to do with modern explanations of existence that do not require a belief in God. And having serious questions about it rebuffed by teachers ill equipped to answer them.

Some dropout because they do not have the aptitude, interest, or Zitzfleish (resoluteness) to focus on difficult religious studies if Charedi – or academic studies if Modern Orthodox. Competing with the bright students for a teachers attention then becomes a losing battle and causes a student to lose self esteem. A great deal of them leave simply because they feel that they do not fit in to the system.

Others lose their religion based on issues of abuse and family dysfunction. Or have parents that cannot handle their children wavering even slightly from their Hashkafa… causing tremendous friction between parent and child. In some cases it is the inability to lead the strict lives in an environment that never saw a Chumra it didn’t like.

In the world of the right there are those that, when inadvertently exposed to it, succumb to those attractions of the secular world that are forbidden by Halacha – being insufficiently prepared for it. Or those in the Modern Orthodox world whose religious backgrounds are not strong enough to withstand the hedonistic college campus lifestyle and its pressure to conform. A lifestyle that is anathema to Orthodox Judaism.

These are just a few of my thoughts after looking at this new Pew Survey. While it is true that Orthodox Judaism and Fundamentalist Christianity seem to both be bucking the trend of shrinkage and are actually growing, that does not mean we have nothing to worry about. Speaking for Orthodox Judaism – we sure do.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.