“Religious” Americans Are Lying to Themselves About Their Identities

America has hit a historical number in a recent Gallup poll. For the first time ever, the majority of Americans do not belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque (for simplicity, the term “church” will be used in the rest of the article to refer to all three types of communities). Only 47% are part of such a religious community. Proportionally, conservatives and protestants have seen less of a decline and millennials are seeing a sharper decline.

What stood out to me more than the percent of Americans who attend church was the percent of people who claim to be religious but don’t belong to a religious community. By 2000 there were 73% of religious folk going to church, now it is down to 60%, almost half of people who claim to be religious do not congregate with others of the same religion.

Gallup says America is “still a religious nation”; however we are now, according to the numbers, not a nation of religious people connected to others of the same religion. I suspect that this means that we are in fact largely a nation of superstitious people who create our own individual religions. Our religious beliefs are largely detached from any specific historical tradition. Our religious beliefs are likewise detached from any particular reason. I would not call a nation of such people a religious nation at all.

The Gallup poll took into account the three major Western religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So, there are Americans who call themselves Jews, Christians, and Muslims who don’t attend church, synagogue, or mosque. The irony is that those religions don’t leave room for spiritual membership without community membership.

The foundational doctrine of what it means to “really be Jewish” is to have a solid self-identity founded in Jewishness. There is a wide array of practices and beliefs in modern Jewish denominations, but the unifying theme is having your own understanding of what it means to be a Jew as opposed to being something else. In modern Judaism, religious beliefs and practices must always be combined with some sense of tradition and community. 

Muslims were commanded by Allah’s supreme prophet, Muhammad, to form a community and to participate in it. God’s mouthpiece on Earth, for all intents and purposes, God himself, commanded the first Muslims to form and nourish the “ummah”, their separate identity apart from all other communities. This was not an optional extra-curricular like Sunday bingo night or a scrapbooking club.

Christians likewise have their own set of commands given by Jesus and the very first Christians, those who walked with Jesus. God’s character is one of servanthood and relationships. Christians are to “be like God” to each other; their God suffered torture, death, and shame for them. One can certainly serve Jesus as king without being part of a Christian community, but if the community is there and they aren’t a part of it, they are not following the example set or the commands given by Jesus and his apostles. Christians are citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven and as fellow stewards of that kingdom, they are called to fellowship with each other and share in the joys and sufferings of their common mission. A Christian’s voluntary or involuntary separation from that community may indicate a deeper, spiritual separation.

As a nation that is becoming less and less religious, it makes sense that less and less Americans are going to a building full of religious people. What makes less sense is why people who claim to follow their religion are actually not. They are apparently wearing the name of their religion like a talisman, good luck charm, or a piece of fashionable jewelry, but they aren’t living it out. These religions do not lend themselves to such a “pick your own adventure” buffet of beliefs. These religions, by their own teachings, are worthless if you choose not to be a part of the community. Making such a choice is indistinguishable from discarding the religion entirely.

Do you think people should surrender their religious label if they don’t participate in the religious community?

Further Information:

More info about the ummah on Wikipedia

Bible verses about “gathering together”

My understanding of modern Judaism is due almost entirely to the book What Do Jews Believe? by David Ariel.

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