We’ve talked a lot about recent LDS growth numbers here including my post on the drop in missionary numbers and Wilfried’s post on the controversial consolidation of units in Europe. Since then the Salt Lake Tribune has weighed in as well. My argument about church growth is that while there are things we could do to improve numbers, we shouldn’t expect a return to the numbers we had in the 1980’s or early 90’s. There are many reasons for that but the basic one is a huge cultural shift in how religion is perceived. Given my relative ignorance of Europe, I’ll try and restrict myself to the US and Canada. The rise of the Nones as a demographic category is the biggest development of the past 20 years here. There are many reasons for why the Nones are rising. I want to discuss a component that I don’t think many have looked at as much. This is the idea of a shift from religion as a duty we have to God to viewing religion as just an other consumer good with a focus on short term benefits to the self. That is religion is coming to be seen the way we might view a concert, clothing, or a movie.
The Canadian sociologist François Gauthier has noted how many elements of consumerism have become characteristic of religion. He noticed that people attending large dance festivals in the 90’s (raves) saw them as religious. He thought that the definition of religion that excluded events like Burning Man as religious was missing something. The traditional view of religion often saw it only in terms of institutionalized religion or religion on the model of state. Gauthier and others instead look to a more generalized model of the economics of consumerism to explain the rise of a post-nationalist religion. For them consumerism isn’t just about immediate function such as a dish washer to wash dishes. Rather the brand component gets wrapped up into questions of identity and expressing your individualism. The style of clothes you wear, the music you listen to, all becomes a deep expression of ones individualism in a fashion that religion used to fulfill.
I’m not sure I buy all of Gauthier’s claims. It’s worth noting that the main alternative view is a kind of mix and match view of religion we tend to disparage as gospel cafeteria theology. What’s fascinating though is how both these views of religion are essentially viewing religion as consumerism. The main difference is merely over what is privileged, a kind of brand identity view of consumerism as spirituality or a more functionalist view of what religions as products do for the person. Yet note how alien this is to the traditional conception of religion. Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age is probably the best known treatment of how religion transformed with the modern age. Going back to the ancient world religion was wrapped up in duty and obligations as well as providing a fundamental ordering of the world and ones place within it. “It is not a matter just of doing one’s duty in the world, but of waging active struggle for the good.” (Kindle location 1902) Taylor quoting John Tillotson, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1694, notes “And nothing is more likely to prevail with wise and considerate men to become religious, than to be thoroughly convinced, that religion and happiness, our duty and our interest, are but one and the same thing considered under different notions.” (3649)
Taylor feels that this shift to consumerism has come with a cost. “They feel emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer sumer culture; the cardboard quality of bright supermarkets…” (4965) While Taylor is not writing of the consumerist model of religion, I suspect he’d see it as the same. It’s into this view that Gauthier’s view of consumerism as brand identity yet spiritual seems so significant. It is the transformation of consumerism into something far more meaningful than Taylor would accept yet that is keeping with his thesis about pre-secular religion. People develop religious views (in Taylor’s sense) of consumerism not just in terms of actual normal consumer goods, but in terms of consumer practices. The dionysian characteristic of not just concerts and raves but also protests becomes a true type of religion from this basic anthropological view.
There remains a difference though that I think is key for understanding this as a social shift away from traditional religion. In say the Great Awakening of the early 19th century the question was what religion to join. But the choice was primarily about which was right. Fundamentally while religion was already shifting in response to modernism, the question was still wrapped up much more in a pre-modern conception of religion as giving us a place and providing us with duties to deal with our sin. Finding the right religion was in fact part of our religious duty. Today a large component of this new post-religion religion is not our religious duty but finding something that resonates with us. Far from the criteria being God the criteria has become ourselves. Now once we choose our identity, much of the traditional trappings of religion come with it. There are sins, unclean things, demons, angels, and priests. The objects that fulfill these roles merely change.
Now the more cynical would argue that as soon as sectarian religion became a choice, this notion of consumerism of religion quickly arose. The fact Joseph Smith, for instance, could choose between Methodism, Campbellitism, Catholicism, Baptists, and so forth meant that religion already was wrapped up in an economy of consumerism. I fully agree and think that change enabled the current change. The switch to our current situation wasn’t abrupt but was a process. Indeed given that so many are still embracing traditional religion it is a process that is still going on.
The problem in terms of religious demographic then becomes that our analysis of religion is flawed. If a raver of the late 1990’s is engaged in a fundamental religious practice, as is an anarchist protestor against globalism, then the rise of the Nones is not really about no religion. You can, I think, already see this in the explanations by the Nones for why they left religion. Politics is a common explanation (often a disagreement with the more socially conservative politics of more conservative religion) but so too are traditional beliefs. Yet, I think the notion that humans have a basic religious drive is a very strong hypothesis. We’re thus seeing through consumerism the rise of non-religious religions that can provide the sense of meaning and “spirituality” people seek.
It is into this fundamental shift in society that I think we need to see Mormon growth numbers. The problem is that our entire strategy of missionary work for the past 150 years has been oriented around converting Christians who feel dissatisfied with their own religion but who typically still accept the basic traditional stance of religious seeking. In countries where people are not as Christian, such as Asia, our missionary work has always struggled relative to competing religions. What I think we are seeing now is that more and more in the west, religion has ceased to be Christian. The very questions we seek to answer regarding authority and sin no longer have play culturally. They are completely alien to many in the rising generation. We have to adjust our approach not only in Asia but even here in the United States. We’ve just not yet figured out what that stance should be.
 We didn’t comment on the Trib story since there wasn’t a lot of information there we’d not already discussed. The article even made use of interviews with Wilfried over the European situation.
 My sense, perhaps incorrect, is that Europe is more religious than most Americans think but it’s an odd religion in many ways tied more to traditional culture and a nostalgia for local nationalism than real religious belief. This is why you have the oddity of atheists who regularly attend church services.
 It’s a common view among evolutionary psychologists that religion and government evolved together – often in inseparable ways as priests and bureaucrats had similar functions. It’s hardly surprising that religion in more complex societies has a structure very similar to government.
 The Religious Studies Project has an excellent interview with Gauthier that’s worth reading. I’m not necessarily embracing Gauthier’s view, which is that even consumerism has come to have a spiritualist component. Rather I’m using his ideas as a jumping off point.
 This mix and match theology is termed bricolage. It explains why Christians will pick up pieces of traditional European religion like druidism along with kabbalism, buddhism and more. Again the Religious Studies Project has an interesting discussion of this. The idea originally comes out of the more structuralist project of sociology and anthropology that arose from Levi-Strauss’ writings on religion.
 Here I’m thinking of Nietzsche’s extremely influential categorization of art into apollonian and dionysian types. The rise of music as a kind of dionysian orgy of emotional fervor in jazz and rock concerts has long been noted.