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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

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Does Social Status Have a Role Among Declining Religious?

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Abandoned churchAn abandoned Methodist church in Gary, Indiana. (photo: slworking2/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

The scientist Lord Martin Rees is an atheist who calls himself a “tribal Christian” because he participates in church services to have social and cultural connection to his Anglican brethren. But recent research is showing that, in some countries, the flock is moving in the opposite direction — out of churches and toward affiliating with other non-believers. And, possibly for the same reason, that calls some “tribal Christians” to a pew each Sunday.

According to researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Arizona, people in nine countries — Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland — say they have no religious affiliation, a trend that continues upward. Researchers compare the shift to replacing one’s native language.

I heard the same themes in a documentary called The Linguists, in which two researchers traveled to Siberia, India, and Bolivia to capture recordings of obscure languages on the brink of extinction. The older, less-spoken languages were replaced when they became socially undesirable or financially limiting. They would “trade up” in a sense to be able to integrate with the more popular language of a nearby majority.

Richard Wiener, one of the study’s authors, says, for example, that “there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there’s some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not.”

What about this analogy he makes? How does not identifying with religion serve people in a way that checking the “religious” box didn’t before? And if the social utility argument holds true, why wouldn’t believers in less popular faith systems simply join larger more mainstream churches/traditions like megachurches who are reporting huge growth?

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