Without ceremony, religion is empty.
Without children, it’s pointless.
Without a strong sense of ethnicity, religious identity disappears.
This is part 3 of a series on the Rise of Atheism. Parts 1 and 2 are here.
Different religions exist because different cultures exist. (Culture, of course, is just another word for ethnicity.)
There’s not a whole lot of difference between what Jews, Christians, and Muslims officially believe–we’re talking about a couple of prophets and whether or not one guy is the Messiah. Heck, some Jews think/thought Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah, but no one considers these folks not Jewish. Mormons are polytheistic, but they still consider themselves Christian.
There’s no particular reason–theologically speaking–to consider the three separate religions at all. We only do so because the adherents of these religions insist on it. In fact, just try suggesting to a Jew or Muslim that their religion is practically indistinguishable from the other’s and see how they react. While you are at it, try suggesting to a Pakistani that Urdu is actually just a dialect of Hindi.
The big difference between Muslims, Jews, and Christians is that they are different ethnic groups–Muslims marry Muslims, Christians marry Christians, and Jews–actually, Jews are marrying non-Jews at a tremendous rate, but I bet that’s mostly atheist Jews. Religious Jews still favor other Jews.
This works as long as you believe your own culture/ethnicity actually exists. If you stop believing that your culture exists, well, you stop believing in the individual bits of it, too. Note that you can have a culture without being particularly aware of it–different American groups definitely have distinct cultures, but aren’t particularly aware of it.
Catholics marry other Catholics and Lutherans marry other Lutherans under the assumption that there is something that it means to be a Catholic instead of a Lutheran. If you regard Catholics and Lutherans as basically identical, then you have no particular reason to marry one or another or even identify as one or another. You just become a generalized “Christian.” And if you stop seeing much difference between Christians and other god-believing folks, then why bother with that distinction? Aren’t you all just theists?
Next thing you know, you’re attending the Unitarian Universalist church, being preached to by an explicitly atheist minister about the wonders of global harmony. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing.
Note that in the graph a posted a few weeks ago:
Protestants, Evangelicals, and Catholics have all lost a third to half their members over the generations, but Historically Black Churches have not. Blacks still see themselves as a coherent ethnic group, with strong church affiliation. Whites with some form of ethnic identity also still tend to attend church (or synagogue.) But whites who have effectively lost their ethnic identity do not.
White Americans have generally lost much of their ethnic identity because “white” is not an identity whites like to promote (“white pride” is generally regarded as offensive,) and few of them have much in the way of memories of their grandparents or great-grandparents who might have immigrated from some other country.
I myself am descended from 12 or 13 different ethnic groups, and have to go back to the early 1700s before I find an immigrant in my family tree. (And since some of my ancestors were Indians, I can take the “American” line back as far as science will let me.) Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some other immigrants in the 1800s, but I haven’t yet–despite a fair amount of research, reading family histories compiled by my grandparents, etc. At this point, the most accurate thing I can say is that my ancestors came from the American South.
Without any strong ethnic identity, people stop identifying with any particular church. And the endpoint of that is atheism.