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America's Religion
Religious Nones, Religious Somes

When it first came out, a new Pew study on American religion made major waves, showing, seemingly, a steep drop off in Christian religious affiliation and a rise in religiously unaffiliated Americans. The percentage of respondents calling themselves Christian dropped by almost 8 points from 2007 to 2014. Atheists, agnostics, and those who identify as “nothing in particular” rose by 6.7 percent to 22.8 percent.

Some, like Ross Douthat, have called the numbers into question for a variety of reasons. In a recent essay on an earlier Pew study, Peter Berger gives one key reason to handle the Pew data carefully: “nones”, those who have unaffiliated from a religious tradition, aren’t quite what you might expect. Here are some of the facts Berger pulls out about them:

  • 14% of the Nones say that “religion is very important in their life”.
  • 68% (!) say that they “believe in God or universal spirit” (30% say that they are “absolutely certain”, 38% that “yes, but less certain”).
  • 21% report that they pray daily.
  • 18% consider themselves “a religious person”; while 37% say that they are “spiritual but not religious” (the semantics of the term “spiritual” is a minefield into which I’d rather not venture here).
  • 12% identify themselves as “atheists”; it is not clear how many of them overlap with those who believe in a “universal spirit”.

Berger concludes from these numbers that “there is little here to suggest that hordes of godless militants are about getting ready to storm the bastions of American religion.” Whatever else it may be, the shifting American religious landscape is a complex thing.

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  • FriendlyGoat

    It is quite possible to revere the teachings of Jesus —–and/or depend upon Jesus as a personal savior——without binding oneself to the doctrines, fraternity or politics of any particular organization. The absence of affiliation with groups such as the Catholics, or Methodists, or Baptists, or Lutherans, or Anglicans, or Episcopalians, or Presbyterians, or Disciples of Christ, or the Assembly of God, or the AME, or Seventh-Day Adventists, or Pentecostals, or Mormons, or the COGIC, or the Mennonites, or any of the 1000 or more independent mega-churches does not necessarily make a person into an atheist, an agnostic.or anyone who should be assumed to be “against” Jesus in any manner whatsoever.

    Perhaps someone somewhere has attempted to be an official “member” of more than one of these denominations at a time, telling each pastor and fellowship about one’s retained membership in both, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard of such a thing going smoothly. You’re supposed to somehow choose and commit to one set of folks and dogma. If you want to have a bit of a heart for ALL of the brothers and sisters in Christ, one way to do that is by not making promises to any particular one of them.

    And——THEN—–there is the unfortunate and problematic subject of politics poured over some, if not almost all, of the denominations in varying degrees. Just as we have more and more voters registering as “independent” or “decline to state”, it should be no surprise if more and more people declare their religion in precisely the same way.

  • Fat_Man

    Religion is not about individual philosophical systems. It is about joining social groups in order to engage in certain rites and rituals. Belief follows membership, not vice versa. William James badly damaged the study of religion in the United States. Judges who worry about references to the Almighty are engaged in a ridiculous and irrelevant pursuit.

    I would fit the above discussed data with other social trends, such as: high youth unemployment, excessive college debt, low rates of marriage, household formation, and child birth. The people most likely to join congregations are employed, married, parents of young children. The ones least likely are single, poor, young men.

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