According to a Pew survey released this month, 19% of Americans can be classified as "nones," confessing no religion. People in the church have responded with predictable handwringing and frustration to the news that organized religion is going down the drain, while secular "free thought" blogs are crowing that the end of affiliation in America means the death of faith.
Both sides are wrong.
First, the facts: The 19% number is indeed the highest we've ever seen. Before this, the most recent national survey information had put the percentage somewhere in the mid teens, from 14% to 16%. If that isn't impressive to you, remember that as recently as 1990, we were looking at more like a 6% or 7% rate of disaffiliation.
Bottom line: We are getting toward three times the rate of disaffiliation we saw two decades ago, and there's no sign of this trend stopping. In fact, it will continue to increase: Among young adults, the rate is more like 25%-30%, depending on your data.
Religious institutions are in trouble, no question. On that score, the concerns of religious leaders are wholly justified. The rolls of mainline Protestant and Catholic churches are shrinking every year. Some of their churches face the harsh choice of being able to pay the pastor or keep up the building but not both. And evangelical and Mormon churches, while still claiming growth, have had their claimed membership numbers called into question in the USA and abroad.
It's a bleak picture for organized religion. But does that support the rhetoric I'm seeing from freethinkers' blogs and websites? Consider this statement:
While the majority of the population still embraces the concept of a “God,” according to a new report, the proportion of Americans abandoning the notion that a higher power exists is expanding. Now, nearly one in five (19 percent) Americans report that they are a part of the “nones” — the growing group of religiously unaffiliated individuals.
This makes it sounds like one in five Americans no longer believes in God, rather than what the survey actually confirms: that one in five Americans is not affiliated with a religious organization or tradition. In fact, the percentage of Americans who believe in God is more than 90%. That's lower than it used to be, but still awfully high for anyone wishing to proclaim the death of God in America.
In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of the trends around religious affiliation and belief is that most people who affiliate say they do believe in God. Many report praying regularly (even some of those who state they do not believe in God) and many say they believe in the inspiration of the Bible.
People's issues with organized religion are often political and social. Although there is a distinct drop in what Americans know about doctrine, there hasn't been a corresponding drop in belief.
And that's where the challenge lies. It may be that most religious institutions are too ossified to make the changes necessary to reach new generations who are not interested in preserving institutions merely for the sake of preserving institutions.
But it is certainly the case that rumors of God's death have been greatly exaggerated.
The image of a stained glass window is used with permission of Shutterstock.com.
* It's also interesting to see disaffiliation trends among minority groups. For example, 25% of Asian Americans claim no religious affiliation, the highest among any ethnic group. Among Asian Americans, disaffiliation is highest among those of Japanese descent (32%) and lowest among Filipinos (8%).