16 August 2008

"Postchristianity" and the Future of Unitarian Universalism in North America (Part II)

I understand that folks are upset by the recent use of the "p-word" by a Unitarian Universalist Association spokesperson after the recent Knoxville shooting. I've got several comments about this in my last blog article ("'Postchristianity' and the Future of Unitarian Universalism in North America").

But I'm going to post this question to see if we can get folks to focus on the long-term demographic trends in North America that point towards a postchristian society:

If we end up with a postchristian society similar to Western European societies where religion fulfills at most a cultural, symbolic, and ceremonial role, what is our future as a Unitarian Universalist movement in this postchristian society?

I would like to focus on this question and how it might affect future Unitarian Universalist growth and survival.

Any thoughts?

"Postchristianity" and the Future of Unitarian Universalism in North America

Postchristianity has been talked about on the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere for the past few weeks -- you can read these discussions here, here, here, here, and here.

However, I think we're overlooking the very real "postchristian" demographic trend in North America and its impact on our congregations.

Here's a brief quote from Wikipedia to help us with what the term "postchristian" might mean:
Postchristianity, postchristendom or postchristianism are variants of a term used to describe a contemporary cultural attitude strictly linked to postmodernism. It may include personal world views, ideologies, religious movements or societies that are no longer rooted in the language and assumptions of Christianity, though it had previously been in an environment of ubiquitous Christianity (i.e., Christendom). Neopaganism and its cultural backgrounds, are the most notable examples of this kind of postchristian new religious movements.

Thus defined, a post-Christian world is one where Christianity is no longer the dominant civil religion, but one that has, gradually over extended periods of time, assumed values, culture, and worldviews that are not necessarily Christian (and further may not necessarily reflect any world religion's standpoint). This situation applies to much of Europe, in particular in Central and Northern Europe, where no more than half of the residents in those lands profess belief in a transcendent, personal and monotheistically-conceived deity.

Or in simpler terms, postchristian describes a culture where Christianity had been the dominant civil religion in the past, is still present today, but is not the dominant religion today.

In other words, religious life in our culture is moving from Christianity as the majority religion to simply being one of many religious views in North America. The suggestion that Christianity is present but not dominant visually depicted by this Universalist lapel pin where the cross is present but not central (image provided by UniUniques):

If the term "postchristian" is insulting, I suppose this lapel pin is insulting as well. Go figure.

In a postchristian world, we can't assume that our potential members will understand the Protestant Christian assumptions that influence our Unitarian Universalist congregations in the past and today.

We will see this demographic shift happen in Canada first based on the extrapolation of current demographics provided by the Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance:
"The percentage of Canadians who identify themselves as Christian has been dropping by about 0.9 percentage points per year. This is very close to the rate of decline in the U.S. If this trend continues, then by about the year 2023, non-Christians will outnumber Christians in Canada."
And here is their prediction for the United States:
[In 2001,] 76.5% (159 million) of Americans identify themselves as Christian. This is a major slide from 86.2% in 1990. Identification with Christianity has suffered a loss of 9.7 percentage points in 11 years -- about 0.9 percentage points per year. This decline is identical to that observed in Canada between 1981 and 2001. If this trend has continued, then:
  • At the present time (2007-MAY), only 71% of American adults consider themselves Christians
  • The percentage will dip below 70% in 2008
  • By about the year 2042, non-Christians will outnumber the Christians in the U.S.
In the past, we have recruited many of our members from those who have left Christianity to become Unitarian Universalist as adults. Close to 90% of our adult membership are adult converts who were not raised as Unitarian Universalist.

However, this group of potential Unitarian Universalists is shrinking.

What impact will this have on our future growth and long-term survivability as a religious movement?

While we discuss the suggestion that "postchristian" is an insulting or loaded term, this demographic issue remains untouched even though it could and probably will impact us within the next 10 to 30 years.