“The quarrel is with the organized part…”

Religion New Service reports on religiosity trends in the US, as found in the 2021 General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS concluded that religious participation declined rapidly during the COVID pandemic. But Michael Hout, professor of sociology at New York University, and two colleagues raise questions about that conclusion. Participation in organized religion may have declined, but in their interpretation of the data, religiosity did not decline as much.

The article raises questions of survey methodology, which are fascinating in themselves. For example, in-person surveys and online surveys have different strengths, and produce different results. And people are less likely to want to participate in surveys these days, because social media allows a better outlet for people’s opinions.

As fascinating as the discussion of methodology was, I was more interested in a couple of Hout’s conclusions.

First, that the decline in participation in organized religion has come mostly among occasional attenders — what I call “CEO Christians” or “Christmas and Easter Only Christians.”

Second, according to Hout, “Atheism is not what’s happening. If we think of organized religion as a conjoined thing, the quarrel is with the organized part, not the religion.”

Both these conclusions sound correct to me. So I’d be interested in a survey that attempted to find out why people “quarrel with the organized part, not the religion.” Are people turned off because of abuse scandals? because organized religion doesn’t feel authentic any more? because of trends outlined by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone? because people have more choices with their leisure time? because of trends towards hyper-individualism? because religions are organizing in new ways (e.g., network Christianity) not found by surveys? because surveys have a biased understanding of “religiosity” that is not keeping up with the way people are living their religion?