A Sobering Stat: The Future of Religion is “Unaffiliated”

Jason Micheli —  October 9, 2012 — Leave a comment

Did you see this latest poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life?

For the first time ever, in 2012, 50% of Americans say they never attend a religious service while a quarter of respondents say they are ‘unaffiliated’ to any religious tradition.

In truth, the results of this study shouldn’t be a surprise to any one who knows someone under 40, in college or doesn’t attend church. Jesus has been an increasingly tough sell for some time now, especially for folks in my generation/income/education bracket, and this often for good reason. It’s not so much they don’t like Jesus; they just don’t like Jesus’ friends.

What the Pew study really points out is just how severely behind the trends the Church has been. While congregations and denominations struggle and decline, refusing to adapt to their new post-Christian context- instead repeating the ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ mantra and hoping the days gone by come back- the social stigma against ‘no religion’ has gone away for good.

Gone too is the ‘de facto established religion’ status Christianity has always enjoyed in American culture.

In the future, the Church won’t be able to rely on societal norms persuading people to become Christian.

In the future, the Church will have to rely on…faith.

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For the first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority, according to a new study. One reason: The number of Americans with no religious affiliation is on the rise.

The percentage of Protestant adults in the U.S. has reached a low of 48 percent, the first time that Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has reported with certainty that the number has fallen below 50 percent. The drop has long been anticipated and comes at a time when no Protestants are on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Republicans have their first presidential ticket with no Protestant nominees.

Among the reasons for the change a spike in the number of American adults who say they have no religion. The Pew study, released Tuesday, found that about 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years.

Scholars have long debated whether people who say they no longer belong to a religious group should be considered secular. While the category as defined by Pew researchers includes atheists, it also encompasses majorities of people who say they believe in God, and a notable minority who pray daily or consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” Still, Pew found overall that most of the unaffiliated aren’t actively seeking another religious home, indicating that their ties with organized religion are permanently broken.

Growth among those with no religion has been a major preoccupation of American faith leaders who worry that the United States, a highly religious country, would go the way of Western Europe, where church attendance has plummeted. Pope Benedict XVI has partly dedicated his pontificate to combating secularism in the West. This week in Rome, he is convening a three-week synod, or assembly, of bishops from around the world aimed at bringing back Roman Catholics who have left the church.

The trend also has political implications. American voters who describe themselves as having no religion vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Pew found Americans with no religion support abortion rights and gay marriage at a much higher-rate than the U.S. public at large. These “nones” are an increasing segment of voters who are registered as Democrats or lean toward the party, growing from 17 percent to 24 percent over the last five years. The religiously unaffiliated are becoming as important a constituency to Democrats as evangelicals are to Republicans, Pew said.

The Pew analysis, conducted with PBS’ ”Religion & Ethics Newsweekly,” is based on several surveys, including a poll of nearly 3,000 adults conducted June 28-July 9, 2012. The finding on the Protestant majority is based on responses from a larger group of more than 17,000 people and has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.9 percentage points, Pew researchers said.

Pew said it had also previously calculated a drop slightly below 50 percent among U.S. Protestants, but those findings had fallen within the margin of error; the General Social Survey, which is conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, reported for 2010 that the percentage of U.S. Protestants was around 46.7 percent. Analysts disagree on whether the increasing numbers of nondenominational Christians should be counted as Protestant. Pew researchers do include independent Christians in their Protestant figure.

Researchers have been struggling for decades to find a definitive reason for the steady rise in those with no religion.’ The spread of secularism in Western Europe was often viewed as a byproduct of growing wealth in the region. Yet among industrialized nations, the United States stood out for its deep religiosity in the face of increasing wealth.

Now, religion scholars say the decreased religiosity in the United States could reflect a change in how Americans describe their religious lives. In 2007, 60 percent of people who said they seldom or never attend religious services still identified themselves as part of a particular religious tradition. In 2012, that statistic fell to 50 percent, according to the Pew report.

“Part of what’s going on here is that the stigma associated with not being part of any religious community has declined,” said John Green, a specialist in religion and politics at the University of Akron, who advised Pew on the survey. “In some parts of the country, there is still a stigma. But overall, it’s not the way it used to be.”

Click here to read the rest of the article in the Washington Post.

Jason Micheli

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