October 24, 2012
By Wayne Slater
The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 –are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in polling by the Pew Research Center. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. They include self-described atheists and agnostics but increasingly people who say they are spiritual but have no particular religious affiliation. This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.
With few exceptions, they say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics. The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” –is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones.
These findings invite two questions:
What is it that the institutions of religion are not providing a growing number of people? And if this younger generation remains unaffiliated as it ages, what’s the future of religion?
Our Texas Faith panel weighs in:...
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Embedded within the data reported by the Pew Research Center are some things that were captured by headline writers and some things that were overlooked by many. What the headlines announced was that fewer than half of all Americans describe themselves as Protestant and that 20% of Americans check “none” on the surveys that ask about religious affiliation—a percentage that is even larger among younger adults.
Within the details of the report were indications of dramatic shifts within the last two decades. And a significant part of that shift has occurred since religious institutions have increasingly identified themselves with a particular political point of view. The alliance between so-called “evangelicals” and self-identified “political conservatives” is actually proving to be a detriment to religious affiliation, according to the Pew report.
What religious institutions are not providing is a sense of welcome and hospitality to a diverse array of persons. Most congregations of Protestants are homogeneous in ethnicity, economic status, and political perspective. To those who may be seeking a setting to explore spiritual questions, most Protestant churches are simply not hospitable. In fact, most are structured in a way that says “Come, for we have the answers!” instead of “Come and let us ponder your questions!”
Increasingly, faith communities are drifting toward the point where they will have to begin discovering what it means to function as a minority. There are places in the world where Christians know how to do that. But it will be unfamiliar territory for North American followers of Jesus....