So…have you all read the latest Pew report on American religion? It’s been reported in the NY Times, too, and I heard that it was the lead story on CBS News (which, unfortunately, said something about a “secular, morally empty America” — did anyone catch it, or better yet, record it?).
It’s mostly good news. We’ve got a fragmented, shrinking Protestant population, Catholics are abandoning ship in droves and what’s keeping it afloat is Catholic immigration from the south, and the “unaffiliateds” are growing fast, especially among young adults.
The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
16.1% is still a minority, but keep in mind that Catholics are 24% of the population — we could pass them by in a few years. Look at that table on the right. We’re huge (but not at all organized or unified, of course) and growing fast. It’s worth looking at past assesments: in 1990, the nonreligious were about 7.5% of the population; in 2001, 13.2%; now, 16.1%.
The Pew people break down the “unaffiliateds” a bit more, and it looks like a significant number of them do still have considerable affection or perhaps dependency on religion — they just don’t seem to like the existing sects. I suspect we can blame that not on the attraction of atheism, but the repulsion from overreaching, grasping American religion.
Like the other major groups, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (16.1%) also exhibit remarkable internal diversity. Although one-quarter of this group consists of those who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (1.6% and 2.4% of the adult population overall, respectively), the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is made up of people who simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” This group, in turn, is fairly evenly divided between the “secular unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the “religious unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8% of the overall adult population).
But don’t try to argue that this “new” muscular atheism is driving people away. 1.6% self-identifying as atheists is a big leap forward: in 2001, that number was 0.4%.
It’s not all good news, though, and this one point here is something we must address.
To illustrate this point, one need only look at the biggest gainer in this religious competition — the unaffiliated group. People moving into the unaffiliated category outnumber those moving out of the unaffiliated group by more than a three-to-one margin. At the same time, however, a substantial number of people (nearly 4% of the overall adult population) say that as children they were unaffiliated with any particular religion but have since come to identify with a religious group. This means that more than half of people who were unaffiliated with any particular religion as a child now say that they are associated with a religious group. In short, the Landscape Survey shows that the unaffiliated population has grown despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all “religious” groups.
So we’re growing fast, but our children have a significant chance of ‘backsliding’ into some religion later in life. I suspect that is a consequence of the fact that most non-religious households will not provide any specific training in beliefs (I know I didn’t!) and godlessness is often presented as simple disbelief without a body of associated positive values. We need to change that.
Although there is also an alternative interpretation: how often have you heard the theistic testimonial that begins “Once I was an atheist…”? It’s practically a cliche. Another possibility is that a lot of born-agains will report their childhood as being unaffiliated with any religion, when what they really mean is that there was religion, it was just less fervent than their current zealotry. I’m not entirely convinced that the supposed low retention rate is real.
Anyway, we have something to feel good about — the trends are running towards a return to a more secular America, although obviously we have a ways to go yet. And of course, when the Rapture comes and all the charismafundagelical loonies vanish in a puff of incense, we’ll have an even greater forward lurch in the percentages.