The Decline of Something Called “Religion”

Stories of Decline


Perry Miller’s exhaustive intellectual histories of Puritan theology were published back in the 1930s and 1940s, and did a lot to revitalize and rehabilitate the Puritans (what? You didn’t know that Puritans have been rehabilitated?).  One of Miller’s primary narrative structures – one he shared, interestingly enough, with his subjects – was the declension narrative: that is, early Puritanism of the 1620s and 1630s shared, as Miller put it, “almost unbroken allegiance to a unified body of thought, and that individual differences among particular writers or theorists were merely minor variations within a general frame.”  It was the later generations, seduced by capitalism and disrupted by immigration that surrendered the early Puritans’ allegiance to covenant and community and the city upon a hill.  Miller seems to believe this, and certainly the sermons of Puritan ministers in 1680, 1690, and even those who survived into the eighteenth century share that idea.


Some of Miller’s most recent critics – particularly David Hall – have argued that Miller suffered from an overly narrow definition of “religion” – that is, sure, the Puritans were in decline if you defined being “Puritan” as adhering to a particularly specific and detailed set of beliefs and practices.  But even if your local Puritan worthy was feeling skeptical about predestination and warming up to the Half Way Covenant, out back the kids were drawing astrological signs in the sand and his neighbor was healing the sick with urine and rye cake, and who’s to say that this wasn’t “religion” too?


And, of course, this keeps happening.  It’s convenient to blast Europe for being secular and having churches with more tourists than worshipers.  But Buddhism is exploding in Europe – among Europeans as much as among immigrants – though it’s fair to say that many Europeans practice an eclectic, ad hoc form of Buddhism, similar to the American embrace of yoga and meditation.  But is this not ‘religion’?  Similarly, it appears that around 20-25% of Europeans believe in reincarnation of some sort.  Forty percent of Turks do. Three quarters of Croats believe in angels, as do forty percent of Britons. The US comes in at just above the British, below the Croats.  Back in the 1980s, 44% of British people regularly read astrology columns.  Is this religion?

Forty or fifty years ago it was popular among sociologists to argue that the world was getting more secular, and pointing to the rise of professionalized, bureaucratic institutions that functioned according to scientific data to prove it.  Yet clearly, even in Europe, religious practices continue to thrive, even if the form of religion was simply morphing.  Most elite Americans – those who write books and newspaper columns and the like – have traditionally assumed that “real” religion should be like that of the Puritans – that is, rigorously ethical, spiritual, and eschewing much reliance on esoteric ritual or objects in favor of personal contemplation of the divine.  This is, perhaps, why the continuation of religious practice in Europe seems to escape many of us who assume that religion is something you do in church.

But there’s a flip side too – observers of Mormonism, including many academics, have constructed a Mormon declension narrative. Modern Mormonism, institutional, regularized, and correlated, is often assumed to be secularized, corporatized, and thus, somehow, less “religious” than early Mormonism was.  But of course this critique is as limited as that of Europe: it partakes of the mid-century sociological reading that precluded overlap between modern bureaucracy and religious practice; it also assumes that “religion” is something that one can’t do in a bureaucratic institution.  With the Europeans on the one hand and Mormonism on the right, Puritan definitions of religion seem to be narrowing indeed.

  • kkammeyer

    Mormonism has recently passed the 15 million member mark. We have been adding about 250,000 new members per year for several decades. That is pretty respectable growth, but far below the 1 million members a year that the Seventh-day Adventists are claiming.
    At the same time, the Brethren in Salt Lake have been attempting to prepare us for a massive influx of new members in the next few years. I have heard figures north of 50 million thrown about. That is a huge up-tic, and can only be ascribed to inspiration, or sheer insanity. We shall see.

  • David Tiffany

    And with all of the “adjusting” concerning man’s concept of God that has happened over the millenia, it’s important to understand that God never changed. He does not change. It’s important for everyone to understand who He is, and what He requires of us. In the end it will not go well for those who miss that mark.

  • laverl09

    To David, God may not change, but He can only communicate to who is listening.
    A good example is Moses’ having to go back up the mountain to get a “watered down” system when the people weren’t ready to receive the higher law Moses was ready to present. This gave the Old Testament the appearance of an angry God.
    Jesus brought the Gospel of love and within a few hundred years it was used to dominate. Our protestant efforts to fight for the freedom to worship as we wished also brought tyranny as each new American colony sought to control the worship of the God they carved out of the chaos of tradition.”
    And if we toss the Old Testament so we can use the God of the New Testament as our base, then why are there hundreds of Biblical sects each describing God in a different way?
    I agree with you that God does not change, but his children’s perception and their writings about Him are certainly a distorting factor in trying to get to know Him as He really is. In the meantime, I am a firm believer in the pursuit Jesus referred to in John 17:3: “And, this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”
    Since our perceptions are all clouded, it behooves us all to cooperate in this most elusive pursuit rather than be as the crabs in a pot–pulling down those who are trying to escape the fog clouding our perception.