One-fifth of the U.S. population today identifies itself as religiously unaffiliated, belonging to the “none” category when surveyed about religious identification, according to a recently released Pew study on religion in America. It was found 18-29 year-olds are much more likely to be unaffiliated than older generations, with roughly one in three saying they are not associated with a particular church.
Christianity is shrinking in general, with Protestants made up more by the old than the young. Catholicism, in spite of an influx of Hispanic Catholic immigrants, is still losing members faster than they are gaining. Of those that do have a religious affiliation, the old are much more likely to maintain religious observance.
What does all of this really mean for America and our future? Some have claimed this changing landscape is a threat to the religious base that has long existed in this nation. After all, we have long been a faith-based nation. Only 1.6 of percent Americans describe themselves as strictly atheist (no belief in a life force, spirit, or god of any kind). Compare this to the EU, with some atheist populations making up over 30 percent of the overall landscape.
Only Poland, Romania, Turkey and Malta could be considered “less atheist” than the U.S. This demonstrates much of what we already know about the U.S. Even when we were at the very forefront of economic prosperity and democratic advancement, our population remained by far one of the most religiously conservative of the western world.
There are those that are looking at these results as an opportunity. Darrin Patrick, a pastor from St. Louis has said, “These numbers are encouraging because they say that people are saying, ‘I’m a free agent.’”
Patrick may be right to look on the bright side. The Pew study shows that a 57 percent majority of people who are unaffiliated are religious or spiritual. Those who are agnostic make up 33 percent of the unaffiliated, with atheists a distant fourth at 10 percent.
In spite of this secularizing trend, community service activities have grown among many of these religiously unaffiliated people. Young people, affiliated or unaffiliated, have shown a higher likelihood to participate in community support activities, whether these activities be organized by churches or not. This demonstrates that youths are refocusing their priorities from religious devotion to spiritual well-being.
Pew’s report gives some clues as to where this growing number of the religiously unaffiliated is coming from. Much of it seems to be a trend away from organized religion in general rather than a shift towards atheistic ideology. Some 67 percent of people who are unaffiliated believe that religious institutions are too entangled with politics, compared with 41 percent of the religiously affiliated. In light of this year’s election, it is becoming more apparent that many religious institutions are finding themselves pushing the policies of one political ideology or another, even though they cannot explicitly endorse either candidate.
This in part seems to be driving younger, more socially liberal voters away from the religions by which they were raised. While the younger generations are more open on the subjects of gay marriage and abortion, many religious institutions have remained firm in their stance on these social issues. Those who take it upon themselves to reconcile their own spiritual or religious beliefs with those of their church are increasing in number.
As some scholars have pointed out, this changing religious landscape is likely a simple shift towards the secular that many other First World nations have already gone through. And in many ways, they are correct. It seems a generally accepted principle that nations will become more secular as they become more democratic and prosperous. As more and more people come of age in a nation moving towards greater social freedoms we will probably see a further decline in the ranks of institutional religion. Even if atheist numbers have not grown as significantly as the “nones” of our nation, we are still undergoing a shift to more socially liberal ideologies.
Is this trend going to change significantly in the near future? It seems unlikely. We continue to be a nation of immigrants. Our long-standing message of religious freedom and economic prosperity invites millions to flock here from less advantageous and even oppressive situations. They bring with them a cornucopia of religious influences, from Islam to Catholicism, Buddhism to Sikhism.
Our religious landscape is going to keep changing, but not necessarily toward a more atheist state. As with so many cultural aspects of the United States, we may be seeing the melting pot at work here as younger generations take in these influences and seek to redefine what it means to be religious or spiritual. It seems more complicated than simply becoming more secular. Instead this seems to be a shift into a new chapter of America’s unique and constantly evolving identity.