Religious Diversity and the Aunt Susan Theory

According to Mark Chaves’ American Religion: Contemporary Trends, the levels of traditional religious belief in America have remained virtually unchanged since 1970. However, statistics show that, during the same time span, there has been a distinctive “decline of belief in the Bible’s literal truth” and “rise of a diffuse sort of spirituality.”

The number of Americans who believe that the Bible should be interpreted literally has decreased by nearly 10 percent since the 1970s, which Chaves attributes to “generational turnover.” Education plays a huge role in the rates of belief in the “inerrancy” of the Bible. In the last century, Americans have put an emphasis on the acquisition of a higher education. Chaves says that less than “half as many college graduates as non-graduates said the Bible should be taken literally,” which is evidence that a higher education coincides with a lower “level of belief in inerrancy.”

However, Chaves admits that a high level of education is not the only contributing factor. In fact, the belief in the Bible’s inerrancy decreased by 11 percent in those without a bachelor’s degree between 1920 and 1960.

Chaves’ ultimate explanation for the decreased belief in the inerrancy of the Bible is that, in general, Americans have lost “confidence” in the “special status of one’s own religion.” This consensus explains why Americans are more accepting of religious diversity within society, as seen through the Aunt Susan theory which states that, because most Americans are friends or acquaintances of people who maintain religious beliefs that are different than their own, they are likely to be more tolerant of religiously diversity in general.

For example, an individual may be raised in a Lutheran household and decide as an adult that they do not believe in the teachings of the church. When that individual expresses his/her newfound beliefs to their devout Lutheran parents, the parents may choose to disregard what they have been taught is the only path to salvation in favor of a path that applies not only Christians but to all good people. This phenomenon occurs because a close association with an individual makes it challenging to accept their condemnation. Of course, the applicability of this theory is dependent on the intensity of the individual in question’s religiosity.

The Aunt Susan theory explains why people who leave their homes to pursue a college career are more likely to show flexibility in their beliefs. Leaving the comfort of a hometown often results in the exposure to people and ideas that individuals have never had to face, which sometimes leads to the evolution or in some cases, abandonment, of the beliefs they were raised on.

The previously mentioned “rise of a diffuse sort of spirituality” can also, at its root, be attributed to this theory. Chaves explains this concept by putting an emphasis on the 5 percent increase in Americans “who say they believe in life after death” from the 1970s to 2008, which you may think sounds like an increase in “traditional religious belief.” However, the key to this statistic is that the majority of that 5 percent is composed of individuals who “are among the least religious…and among subgroups who have not traditionally emphasized an afterlife.”

This is not to say that the belief in life after death has decreased amongst American Christians, but just that it has substantially increased amongst other populations, such as religious nones. The slogan for diffuse spirituality is “spiritual but not religious,” which is a concept that is thwarted when researchers ask Americans if they are “both spiritual and religious.” Only “20 percent of people under 40…describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.”

Chaves expresses his belief that an identification as “spiritual but not religious” and a disinterest in organized religion go hand-in-hand. Because of this, Chaves believes that the there is very little room for a resurgence in religiosity amongst these individual because they are not searching to be “won over” by a religious institution.

Michael O. Emerson’s Religion Matters discusses this trend and underlines the growth of alternative spiritualities, beliefs that “do not represent traditional religious beliefs and practices that one might find in a congregational setting.” These ideas are not necessarily new, but have only recently begun to rival established religious institutions through the economic success of shops and other outlets for those who believe in divination and other forms of alternative spiritualities, which can be uncovered and practiced through, say, the maintenance of a healthful body or a strong relationship between the self and some element(s) of nature.

In essence this diffuse spirituality is, as put by Emerson, a result of the adaptation of “religion and religious organizations” as we make technological and cultural progression.


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