In the 1960s researchers began tracking Americans' religious identity. At that time two-thirds of us, according to Pew Research (and reported by Laurie Goodstein in the NYT), were church-going Protestants. Not only is this no longer true but Pew's latest study finds fairly massive defections from all Protestant denominations, liberal, mainstream, even the more evangelical/conservative churches. Today, fewer than forty-percent of Americans identify as Protestants. Defections are primarily those of white Protestants. Black and other minority Protestants have not ended to stray.
Highlights of the study -- :
. Protestants who leave their churches do not tend to join other churches, nor do they identify with other Christian faiths.
. Protestants and Catholics who have left their churches overwhelmingly identify as people having no religious faith.
. In 2007, only fifteen percent of Americans said they had no religion. Twenty-percent now report no religious commitments.
. In 1967, just seven-percent of Americans said they had "no religion".
. More than a third of Americans between eighteen and twenty-two say that have no religion.
. Even baby-boomers in the 1970s were twice as likely as current eighteen-to-twenty-two year-olds to identify with some (traditional) religious faith.
. Americans (of all ages) claiming no religion (Pew Research calls them "Nones") are the second largest U.S. group on the religious identity spectrum, second only to those identifying as Catholics (who are twenty-two percent of Americans).
. At the same time, Catholic-identity has held steady, but not because of the fealty of White, U.S.-born Catholics but because of immigration. Catholic immigrants have replaced many U.S.-born Catholics who have left the Church in the past five years.
. The rising numbers of the "Nones" may have political implications as they tend to support traditionally Progressive causes as well as marriage equality.
One way of looking at this trend is that we may be catching up with Western Europe as to decreasing religious affiliation (and in most demographics). American numbers now much more closely resemble wider Western attitudes than ever before.
And yet one caution --:
A stated lack of religious belief and institutional affiliation has not translated into an abandonment of justice-causes tied to religious organizations and/or those based on spiritual inspiration. Faith-related social justice groups, such as those who put out calls for volunteers to staff soup kitchens and, say, Habitat for Humanity projects, food banks, women's shelters, clothing drives for the poor among us, and similar community-based efforts, report the same levels of enthusiasm and involvement they had seen before these "None" numbers jumped.
Three questions for you, assuming for the moment that Pew's numbers are valid.
. Have you seen evidence for this shift in your own community?
. Do you think that sensing this shift has contributed to the Religious Right's increasing involvement in electoral and issue-driven politics?
. How do you see this playing out in our culture?
. This study did not look at Jewish, Muslim, or other minority American religious identities and affiliations. If you are a Jew or a Muslim, or part of another religious group, what do you imagine such a study would reveal about your community?