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.

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