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American society is becoming more open.

A Gallup poll of Americans’ moral stances reveals a citizenry that is becoming more open, and less dogmatic. The poll compares change on various moral issues in the last 14 years, and there are some striking differences in that time, in particular concerning attitudes toward sex and relationships.

The Numbers

First off, between 2001 and 2015, pre-marital sex and divorce are two things that have gone from roughly half of the country tolerating to solidly in the morally acceptable column, with more than two thirds now viewing them in a morally acceptable light. These appear to be issues that are no longer particularly controversial for the time being, and moving forward, if other trends hold. The ship has sailed, so to speak.

The moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relationships has obviously passed a tipping point since 2001, with the number indicating moral acceptance increasing from 40% to 63%. With movement so dramatic, and so fast, it is looking like a question that might not be worth asking 14 years from now.

Meanwhile, attitudes about polygamy have had the most dramatic shift in proportional terms, moving from 7% acceptance to 15% acceptance. Obviously, 15% represents a small minority of the populace, but it is interesting to note such dramatic change, and were this rate of change to continue, it is easy to imagine this issue becoming part of mainstream public debate in the not-too-distant future.

The poll itself perhaps exposes its own prudishness, though, since it does not ask about polyandry, and it also totally ignores polyamory or open relationships as questions. This is a pity, since questioning the public about polyamory in this context might have been interesting. One would expect more people to support polyamory than polygamy or polyandry, since it avoids the issue of the institution of marriage.

Another recent poll conducted by YouGov showed exactly that, and it also showed that the issue is, like many of these topics, an area where religion is possibly a key driver of disapproving attitudes. Overall, 56% of the U.S. public view polyamory as morally wrong, and one wonders if the issue is nearing a possible 50/50 inflection point. There is a big religious disparity here, which I’ll address later. In the YouGov survey, 80% of those who identify religion as “very important” indicated polyamory is morally wrong, while 58% of those who identify religion as “not at all important” said they view polyamory as morally acceptable.

If we are to think of polyamory as consensual non-monogamy, then the views on non-consensual non-monogamy (in other words, cheating), have not changed much, moving from 7% to 8% acceptance according to the Gallup poll. Still, that small change does not contradict the general trend toward openness.

Indeed, on every question asked, in the past 14 years, the U.S. population has shifted toward more openness in terms of what is considered morally acceptable. Since religion is a key driver of moral attitude and opinion, not only for polyamory, but for most of these issues, it’s interesting to look at religious trends to see how these numbers will continue to move.

What About Religion?

Earlier in 2015, Pew looked at religious affiliation, and the results show that among so-called Millenials, only 57% identify as Christian. This is significant since every U.S. generation in recent times has seen Christians representing more than 70% of the population. When you also consider that the survey asks about “affiliation”, you can imagine some number above the unaffiliated of people who still identify with their religions, but aren’t active practitioners (and indeed, within religious groups, people still choose their own morality, since certain sects reject homosexuality, for example, while others in the same faith accept it).

The movement away from organized religion among other age groups is less dramatic, but still pronounced. Almost one in four Generation X-ers, for example, now identify themselves as “unaffiliated”. It’s interesting to note that while the religiously unaffiliated in the entire population have increased markedly in numbers (16% to 22%) in just the seven years from 2007-2014, the number of atheists, while also growing, still lies in the single digits. This suggests that people are not necessarily abandoning spirituality, but are rather abandoning the religious institutions that claim to provide it.

Among the Millenials leaving organized religion, several reasons have been cited in research into what is driving people’s decision-making. Billy Hallowell at The Blaze neatly summarized these issues, based on research by Focus on the Family and the Barna Group. The issues were: hypocrisy, politics at the pulpit, isolationism, sex and openness as reasons for people’s search for their own spiritual experience away from Christian institutions.

Indeed, anecdotally, many of my atheist friends have cited hypocrisy as a major issue driving them way from religion initially. Sex and openness are clearly reflected in the above surveys. When you consider that society as a whole is relaxing its attitudes on sex and openness according to what the survey shows, then restrictive religious thought is also incompatible for others as well. In short, people really have no choice but to leave organized religions, if they get to a point where they feel that the dogma forces them to live contrary to their ideals.

All of these numbers can make your eyes glaze over, but my own opinion on the matter is that religion as an institution is simply less important than it once was as a contributor to solving the problems people have, and providing the answers they seek. The reason isn’t really about religion per se, but more about the fact that people have more options nowadays. And it’s here that I want to get a bit away from the “religion” bit, and talk about why it’s really the “institution” part that’s clashing with modern society.

What’s the Role of Institutions in the Future?

Religious institutions throughout human history have been instrumental in enabling society to cohere. They have served as a mechanism for policing human behavior (i.e., their dictations on morality), while at the same time providing a way to have shared “groupthink”. (Of course, often this cohesion is forced but however it happens, it has the same effect.)

If most all the people in a town or kingdom or country can agree on some basic principles, then they can perhaps more easily work together on progress in other areas to make society better, and at the same time the religious institution works as a cudgel to goad people into supporting conflict against people with other ideologies. It is therefore a useful tool for elite members of society to use again and again to achieve goals, whether they be profit or territorial expansion or something else.

Generally Speaking, in this day and age, society has less of a need for that homogenizing function of religious and other institutions, because we have another tool (the Internet) that links all of us together into a collective network, regardless of our beliefs. Within this system, two things are happening: first, people are being exposed to things beyond their town or kingdom or ideology, which has the effect of creating a more complex understanding of other societies and cultures; and second, we no longer need to rely on any one particular group or institution to help guide us through our problems, since we have more options.

It used to be that the wise man, religious leader or witch doctor was the go-to person for guidance. Over time, society added other similarly centralized non-sectarian counsellors and authority figures. In the new paradigm, with instant and worldwide communication, people are creating their own support groups and subcultures that anyone can join. This creates the same sense of community (or micro-community, focused on a narrow topic), and these collective communities are undermining the supposed authority of those who previously declared themselves to have the answers we sought. Further, people may join as many of these communities as they desire, and where there are cultural collisions, the individual can sort out for herself which pieces she values and which she doesn’t, thus creating her own philosophical “remix”, so to speak.

To put it another way, and link it to the first survey on morality mentioned: maybe people are recognizing that a pastor or counsellor isn’t the only person to ask about problems with relationships or the morality of sex. They still have those voices available to them, but now people have a multitude of other options: there are a variety of non-sectarian specialists on almost any topic relating to the struggles of the human condition, and indeed there are support groups and online communities for virtually any topic, from the trivial to the philosophically profound. The result is perhaps a more cacophonous public dialogue, but one more suited to handling specific needs, while at the same time allowing alternative thought to be heard.

In that context, it is a recognition that centralized institutions generally, and religious institutions specifically, are slowly losing their primacy at the center of human societal organization. Rather, they are becoming one voice among many, and as the plurality of voices increases, so too the influence of those formerly dominant institutions on society’s attitudes toward morality will decrease, with the inevitable result being a more permissive society.

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