The emergence of religion as a matter of personal conviction has made it (almost) a leisure pursuit, one of many which compete for our attention. This state of affairs is revealed by the comprehensive study of religious practice in Switzerland: “Religion in the age of the ego.”
Not so long ago, for many people, Sunday morning was reserved for church-going: the sermon or the Mass, depending on one’s faith. Times have changed, as is shown by the fascinating study by researchers from Lausanne and St-Gallen into religiosity in Switzerland, entitled Religion and spirituality in the age of the ego. Four profiles of (un)belief (published in 2015 by Labor et Fides). The individual has become king, the sole master of his destiny. In terms of lifestyle and career, leisure, political or sexual orientation, everything now is a matter of personal choice.
“In the religious or spiritual domain, no one can tell us any more what to believe or what to do,” explains Jörg Stolz, dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Lausanne and co-author of the study. “The individual therefore becomes a consumer, and the religious life one option among others.” On Sunday morning, for example, attendance of a church service competes with jogging, playing football, going skiing or lounging in front of the TV. “In parallel,” points out Jörg Stolz, “in the age of the ego, the people who opt to practice religion do so of their own free will, because they have the impression that it does them good.”
An activity like any other?
So should religion now be considered as a leisure pursuit like any other? “I would say rather an activity like any other,” emphasises the sociologist of religions Mallory Schneuwly Purdie, co-author of the study. “During their free time, people find themselves having to make choices.” She reflects on how families organise their lives today: “Personal wellbeing comes before family or community wellbeing. Everyone’s wishes are catered for, which complicates even further how we access religion.” Indeed, on a Sunday morning it’s often the case that even very religious parents must choose between going to church or taking their child skating or horse-riding…
Today, transmission from generation to generation – or rather its absence – has become a real problem. Indeed, fewer and fewer adults, even among believers, take charge of their children’s religious education. Either because the framework for doing so is lacking, or more often through personal choice. “Since the 1960s, parents have felt that they can no longer impose a particular type of behaviour on their children,” explains Jörg Stolz. “Today, people discuss things, take into account everyone’s interests and negotiate. And children are very much aware that their word counts. On the subject of religion, parents often say that they don’t want to impose anything and that their child will choose later.” As a result, many adults in the study say they didn’t register their child for Sunday school because the youngsters were more interested in dance lessons or hockey…
For Mallory Schneuwly Purdie, such freedom accorded to the child is deceptive. “Many parents of different confessions make this choice. But, by not introducing their child to religion, they are signifying something else: that the religious life is not important, not worthwhile.” In fact, non-adherence can be passed on much more easily than adherence.
“It is important not to make religion a special case,” she points out. “We also see fewer and fewer jobs passed down from generation to generation, such as, for example, small businesses, which traditionally went from father to son. The same can be said of political affiliations. It is extremely rare today to see an entire family support a single party.”
Same phenomenon in the United States and Australia
The phenomenon of competition between leisure pursuits and religion is not unique to Switzerland. Jörg Stolz cites two very interesting studies on this subject. Firstly in the United States, when the Blue Laws prohibiting shops from opening on Sunday were abolished in some cities. “At that time, attendance figures in churches fell steeply,” notes the dean.
He remarks on a second study, in Australia this time, the aim of which was to question people who used to go to church regularly, but had stopped or cut down their attendance: “Two main reasons were cited by such people: the fact that it was no longer expected, and because they had too many other things to do.” Another plus for the theory of competition…
Loss of influence
How can we explain that religion, hitherto so important in our civilisation and decisive for setting the rhythm of our lives, from cradle to grave, should have lost so much influence? “We talk of secularisation mainly since the 1960s, but in reality it’s a process which has been under way for centuries,” notes the sociologist. He assigns its origins to the century of Enlightenment with the affirmation of the power of reason of the individual, as well as to popular revolts against governments which used religion to assert their power. “Little by little, the different institutions controlled by religion proclaimed their independence, meaning that religion today is no more than one institution among others.”
The modernisation of society and the acquisition of new knowledge, particularly scientific, also weakened religion: “In earlier times, religion answered many questions which today are scientific or medical in nature,” adds Jörg Stolz. “Although religion had already lost much of its power by the 1950s, society continued to see itself as Christian. People considered themselves to be Catholic or Protestant. Religion was not seen as something that could be freely chosen or relinquished.”
Security undermines religion
A veritable revolution took place in the 1960s. Different values were put forward, such as freedom and individualism. The economic boom radically changed the structure of society. New resources also freed up a whole new range of leisure pursuits, whether it be motoring, music, or film. Did these new comforts play a role in the abandonment of religion? “I would say security rather than comforts,” corrects Mallory Schneuwly Purdie. “In Switzerland, we live in a secure framework. War is a thing of the past, there are no food shortages or electricity supply problems: we know that everything works. Such security means we have less need to look for justifications for our misfortunes, and less need to pray for change. The welfare state has replaced the support of the church in some areas.” She adds: “In periods of existential crisis, such as divorce, bereavement or redundancy, people tend to turn once more to religion, to ask for help from above.”
Leisure is not the only thing that competes with religion. “Religions are multifunctional, and so competition comes from all sides,” notes Jörg Stolz. The social bond can be replaced by the sports club or any other association; a sense of insecurity can be lifted by taking out private insurance policies. Similarly, reassurance can be given by psychologists and advice handed out by all sorts of coaches. Not to mention the question of spirituality, which can be relayed by all kinds of alternative practices. “To stay competitive, religious groups themselves are beginning to use religious marketing. Alternative spirituality works very well in this consumer society. The age of the ego is well and truly at its apogee: if it’s good for you, do it,” sums up the professor.
Mallory Schneuwly Purdie, for her part, refers to the notion of Do-it-yourself, which is increasingly prevalent in spiritual matters: “Often people no longer adopt the full programme of any one religion. Rather than the end product, they prefer to use replacement parts to build a personal solution.” Once again, it’s an attitude which is not exclusive to religion: “In politics too, people vote less for a party and more for a cause, on a case by case basis…”
“We are seeing less religion in Switzerland”
Jörg Stolz does however place boundaries on this idea of a spiritual marketplace: “You cannot say either that everyone is a consumer of religion and that all religions are competing with each other, like Apple and Samsung. The Protestant church, for example, is not in competition with Islamic centres. And not everyone is constantly trying to find a religion. There are more people leaving the Church than those looking for a different spiritual path.”
Taking into account the different types of believers and unbelievers catalogued in the study, the overwhelming impression is that the shifts from one type to another point most often to the abandonment of religion. Must we expect Christianity to die out altogether? “While the mechanisms remain the same, we are seeing less religion in Switzerland,” replies Jörg Stolz. “But it is quite possible that Christianity will find ways to adapt that will assure its survival – as has been the case for 2,000 years.”