MARCH 18, 2002
America the Shmoo
-- Martin E. Marty
Cathy Grossman's story in the March 7 edition of USA Today carried the headline: "Charting Unchurched America: 14% profess no religion. For them, spirituality is found elsewhere." Grossman was reporting on assessments by American Religious Identity Survey 2001 and National Religious Identification Survey 1990, both from the Graduate Center of City University of New York.
Their finding, she reports, is that "In 2001, more than 29.5 million Americans . . . said they had no religion -- more than double the number in 1990. . . . People with no religion now account for 14% of the nation, up from 8% . . . in 1990." Responses are regionally spotty. Only three percent of North Dakotans say "no religion," while twenty-five percent in Washington State -- no surprise -- declare themselves to have no religion. (According to Grossman, you can check usatoday.com to see how your state measures.)
The article suggests that some people transfer the charitable and volunteer activities long associated with religion to other kinds of (semi-secular? secular?) agencies, or work on their own. Ms. Grossman fair-mindedly quotes people on both sides of the religious/secular and religion/spirituality polarities. One may make all kinds of allowances for flaws in polling and in particular polls, and for the influence on response of the diverse ways of asking the questions. Yet here is more documentation that something is going on. People (e.g., after 9/11) insist that they are religious or spiritual, but do not need religious institutions to further their searches for meaning, as they once did.
The Religious Identity Surveys do well on geography, regionalism, and affiliation, but we should try to learn more about social class, educational levels, etc., as well. Years ago I described American society as shaped like Al Capp's Shmoo, the bottom-heavy, small-headed waddler in Li'l Abner. Why bottom-heavy? Much in society does not change. Inertia is a first element in history. Societies need ballast. But there are also more mobile, experimental, free-to-explore 'elites' in society. The relations among "ballast" and "exploring" types are certainly complex, but they form a society with a decidedly Shmoo-like shape. How closely does the divide between "religion" and "spirituality" follow the divide between ballast and explorer?
When one sees the crammed parking lots at many kinds of churches, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Mega, it is hard to believe that there is a dramatic desertion of "religion" and religious institutions. Where do the "spiritual" abandoners take their search? Are they the "head of the shmoo" people that we chroniclers chronicle so faithfully because they are easy to observe? Mobile, M.B.A.ed, well-off, this caste has some reason to be alienated, and more freedom to explore. The Grossman article satisfies some curiosities and inspires others. Poll away. . . .