Back in the 60s with the advance of modernity, the pundits said that God was dead. The prediction that science and industrialization and media were bringing about a more secular society and the primitive grip of religion on society was coming to an end was false. Instead of religion dying it has grown and proliferated at startling rates. What has changed significantly though is the homogeneity of religion and instead of a religion being dominant and the centalizing facticity of a society, religion is now characterized by its plurality.
Increasingly, people are no longer born into a religion which is an assumed sine qua non of their indentity, but a voluntary organization which they make a choice about joining. Religion is an object in the consumer market which competes in the marketplace for consumers and uses its brand identity to attract customers.
Religion is no longer something you are but something you can choose to become or simply something you can merely sit in the audience and watch as a spectator rather than be a participant.
"Do you go to a church" or "Are you affiliated with any church" is a different question than "are you a Buddhist, a Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant?" Religion is no longer such an internalized part of our identities that we are it, but rather religion is something that we choose to practice or not. Religion, rather than being an identifier of who we are has become a preference.
The implications for the development of religion becoming a social plurality are enormous for society. If religion is something people are no longer born into, then membership becomes a conscious decision which involves human choice and election. Churches can no longer assume a captive audience and continual replenishment from the procreative activities of its heterosexual members who are at the age of fertility. So the mainline churches are dying. They tend to be hierarchial, bureaucratic, rigid and unresponsive to the quickly changing expectations and desires of the marketplace while the independent churches are flourishing and attain the size of "mega churches".
Church has become enterainment and facile fellowship which is comforting, companionable, sometimes inspirational, reassuring, and above all else ego enhancing. The gospel of prosperity is well received as well as the encouragement to a purpose driven life which helps people develop a sense of meaning in a world that often is threateningly out of control.
What does it mean to be a "member" of a voluntary association? To what extent does my membership define me as an individual, obligate me to responsibilities for others, and constitute the framework for a way of life? The simple answer is "It varies." Increasingly in a pluralistic society, membership might not mean much because one's association can be as rapidly dissolved as it was made.
And so in our pluralistic society, the meaning of membership, especially in religious organizations must be re-thought. Increasingly, postmodern people are very skeptical of religious organizations as being life giving, spirit fulfilling organizations but rather contraining, judgemental, and dysfunctional. The common answer to the question now days, "Do you go to church?" is "Well, no. I am spiritual but not religious." Faith has become a very personal thing but there is reluctance to join with others in community out of fear of being hurt and injured in organizational dysfunction.
Religious affilitation is no longer an engrained part of people's identity. Religion plays a more marignalized role in people's lives in a post modern society, and yet people seem to continue to be attracted to religious organizations that offer some sort of hope, inspiration, solace, and meaning for the living of their lives.
We will be discussing these issues more fully in the UU A Way Of Life on line discussion group. If you would like to join the group send me a request at firstname.lastname@example.org