The recent Pew study on religious identity showed that the largest growing sector of the American religious population are the so-called “nones” - a category which includes both atheists and agnostics (7%) and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” (about 18%). This makes the nones the second largest religious group in the country, after Evangelical Protestants.
This led to a couple of stories rather hopefully predicting that the nones could become a voting block to counter the Christian right. The problem with this idea is that there's a lot of variation within the category called nones – from Sam Harris-like hardcore atheists to the “spiritual but not religious”, and these varied groups are probably not motivated by the same things politically.
But there's another aspect of the rise of the nones that I want to address, and it has nothing to do with the tired arguments about whether God exists or not. I believe that the decline in religious identification is a significant negative societal indicator.
Let me explain: for the past 30 years all kinds of social groups have declined precipitously, from labor unions to the Rotary Club. Religious groups were the last to fall, but their fall is of a piece with the fall of all these other groups.
This coincides (not coincidentally) with the rise of libertarianism as a political force in the US.
And that decline was not something that just happened. The hyper-individualism of the past three decades was designed (and paid for) to destroy the social bonds between people beyond the nuclear family, and this was done both for business (consumption) and political (the rise of the right) reasons.
Religious groups are almost the last groups that are not self-selected where people are supposed to care for each other. In the absence of faith identity, we choose our communities, based on a number of factors that may include sexual or political identity, personal interests or hobbies, etc. In other words, we join them based on our needs, and we find in them people who meet those needs. There's no selflessness there. Religious communities, on the other hand, are at least putatively based on a higher calling, and we don't get to choose who the other members are. We are forced (in a sense) to care for people who are not related to us and may not be like us in any way other than by creed. With it, there's some element of selflessness. Without it, there isn't.
So to this way of thinking, the decline in religious identity is not a positive, progressive social outcome but is rather part of the work of destroying the bonds between people so that it's every man/woman for themselves. It's also not coincidental that the forms of religious identity that collapsed the most or the fastest are the most progressive – liberal Judaism and Mainline Christianity. In other words, the decline of religious identity is – perhaps paradoxically – counter-revolutionary.
The other thing I want to mention, briefly, is that I'm dubious about the spiritual efficacy of “spiritual but not religious” practice. Going to yoga or doing secular mindfulness meditation is a positive thing, but it's self-centered, part of the “self-help” ethos. If there's anything we don't need more of in this country, it's self-help. Religious traditions are based on the development, over thousands of years, of technologies to help people get over themselves. You just can't make up a suitable replacement on the fly. I don't believe in exclusive salvation, so I'm not saying what practice people have to have, but people have to have a practice.
Without a practice, without a creed, without a community, we only have another form of consumerism. And we don't need anymore of that, either.