Another Pew Survey: The numbers of religiously-unaffiliated spike again

Here is the story from Rachel Zoll of the AP. Full results of the survey are available here.

About the “nones,” now approximately 20%: They may believe in God; they may pray; they may be “spiritual but not religious.” But they do not affiliate with any religious organization nor do they want to:

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.

Alan Jacobs ponders the significance of this:

The question I would ask is this: Has there been an actual increase in religiously unaffiliated people, or do people who are in fact unaffiliated simply feel more free than they once did to acknowledge that fact? My suspicion is that until quite recently a person born and baptized into the Catholic church who hadn’t attended Mass in fifteen years would still identify as a Catholic; but recently is more likely to accept his or her unaffiliated status. There is less social (and perhaps also psychological) cost in saying “I have no particular religion that I’m connected to” than there once was.

That is, the poll may reflect not a change in behavior but a change in how people think of their behavior — a change that brings their self-descriptions more closely into line with reality. And that wouldn’t at all be a bad thing: there’s always something to be said for the removal of illusions, for “reveal[ing] the situation which had long existed.”

Most striking about all this are the generational shifts. Among “millennials” the numbers are shocking. Of younger millennials (those born between 1990 and 1994), 34% claim no religious affiliation. Older millennials are only slightly more likely to be involved in organized religion (30% now compared to 26% in 2007). The number of unaffiliated Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers has also increased; the latter in spite of recent articles trumpeting the return of Boomers to church.

What are we to make of this? I think it’s right to say that part of it is that there is less stigma attached in saying one does not attend church. On the other hand, I suspect that a willingness to self-identify as non-religious reflects behavioral and attitudinal change.
Growing numbers of Americans simply don’t seem to care about institutional religion. It is irrelevant to their lives.

This certainly has enormous implications for denominations and local congregations. If large numbers of young people have no inclination to get involved in church, no interest in attending services even on Christmas or Easter, or being married in a church, that means they are seeking meaning in other places and in other ways than through traditional religious language and categories. It may be that they are not even asking questions about themselves, their lives and the world that can be engaged in religious terms.

This is what “post-Christian” culture looks like. It’s not simply a matter of a decline in prestige, power, and influence for the churches. If the trend continues, how many young adults will claim no religious affiliation 10 years from now? 50%? More?

How do we proclaim the gospel in this context? What does it mean to be church? For Anglicans, it won’t be enough to say that we offer a “via media” or that “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” People won’t understand what the former means and won’t even see the latter sign.

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3 thoughts on “Another Pew Survey: The numbers of religiously-unaffiliated spike again

  1. As someone who is actively engaged in teaching the millenials, I can say with a fair degree of confidence, that it is not the changing stigma associated with identifyig as atheist or agnostic, but the changing stigma associated with being associated with organized religion. My students tell me that the view religious institutions as breeding grounds of hatred, intolerance, and hypocrisy, whether they be Islamic or Christian. Looking back at the religious history that has taken place during their lifetimes, from clergy abuse scandals that were shoved under the rug, to 9/11, to increasing divisiveness over issues that young people think should be left alone (see sexuality), one can see why they would be fed up with this perceived intolerance.

    This is what makes churches like the Episcopal church ever more important. I have a day at the end of the semester when they can ask me anything they want about my life, my views, etc. – since I try to be scrupulous about presenting the material I teach ‘untainted’ by my own political and religious views. They are surprised that a church exists that it so close to Catholicism in its love of the sacraments and scripture, yet so open to all.

    Finally, my experience both as a professor and a chapain-in-training has showed me that, far from being uninterested in connection with God, or the transcendent, people young and old, beginning their lives or ending them, long for connection with the divine. They just don’t want the extra baggage that they fear might come with it.

  2. Don’t misunderstand me. I agree that there is a longing for the divine at the heart of every human being. I wonder whether Christianity in general or the Episcopal Church, have the capacity and creativity to respond to that longing. My experience teaching Religious Studies in what once was the “Christ-haunted” South suggests that there are whole segments of our population for whom religious language is meaningless (in 2009, a student asked after I made an offhand comment about Adam and Eve, “Who are they?”). Further, we have been so shaped by consumerist culture that many can only express their longing for the infinite by purchasing the latest iphone.

  3. I agree completely. And the question then becomes how do we meet the challenge being offered up by our thoughtful yet sometimes ignorant millenials? I talk to students sometimes about my connection to SSJE, an Anglican Monastic order in MA, and about living a rule of life. They always think it’s a cool thing that they would like to try. It seems to me that begining with the nourishing practices of Christian spirituality and building outward to religious knowledge and understanding is one way to go. Thanks, as always for your thoughtful blog.

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