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Opinion Organized religion is losing its followers

Pope Francis visits a center for Alzheimer's disease patients in Rome on April 12. (Vatican Media) (Vatican Media Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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CNN reports, “For the first time ‘No Religion’ has topped a survey of Americans’ religious identity, according to a new analysis by a political scientist. The non-religious edged out Catholics and evangelicals in the long-running General Social Survey." Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor, found that 23.1% of Americans identify as “No Religion.” In the survey, 23 percent say they are Catholic and 22.5 percent say they are evangelical Christians.

For comparison, in 1972 only 5 percent said “No Religion." (“The meteoric rise of religious “nones" began in the early 1990s and has grown 266% since 1991,” Burge found.) Since 1972, those who identify with one of the mainline Protestant denominations have gone from 28 percent to 11 percent, and Catholics have declined from 27 percent to 23 percent. By contrast, evangelicals have gone from 17 percent to 23 percent. The nones category includes people other than atheists, including “agnostics, the spiritual, and those who are no specific organized religion in particular.”

Collectively, those who identify with some religion still greatly outnumber those with no religion. But the numbers do put into perspective how many Americans find no home in organized religion.

It’s not clear why there has been a shift, although disenchantment with the conduct of church leaders, especially in the Catholic Church, may explain some of the decline.

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The survey is consistent with other studies, including Robert P. Jones’s work. In “The End of White Christian America,” he documents the turning point at which white Protestants of all denominations could no longer claim a majority of Americans. He posits that this phenomenon is at least partially responsible or the rise in white resentment of urbanites — the feeling of loss of social and cultural primacy — that President Trump so adeptly manipulated.

This and other studies have noted that the drop-off in religious identification is especially evident in the millennial generation. The American Family Survey conducted last year found, “For Millennials and even GenXers, the most common religion is no religion at all. The Nones claim 44% of the 18–29 age group, and nearly that (43%) among those who are 30–44.” That is a dramatic change from other generations. "Among Americans older than 65, just 21% … say they are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. However, even that 21% is a five-point rise from where the over-65 group was in 2015, when just 16% identified themselves this way.”

One might conclude that faith leaders who have morphed into political lobbyists, cultural warriors and partisan cheerleaders have neglected their core role. To the extent younger generations are more progressive politically, they may now look upon religious sects as akin to political parties or political action committees, with which they choose not to affiliate.

Although younger Americans are not attracted to organized religion to the degree other generations have been, they still care greatly about what he loosely call “values.” We see this in their consumer choices and demand for socially responsible companies as well as in politics, as a Pew Research Center poll in 2018 found. Younger generations want government to do more for the poor, are more concerned about the environment, are more concerned about racial disparities and overwhelmingly believe we should be “open" to the world.

The decline in organized religion has wide-ranging consequences, from social isolation to attitudes about science and technology and, of course, to politics. Political candidates who can speak to people of faith as well as religiously non-affiliated voters who nevertheless look at politics as a value-driven endeavor will do well in today’s atmosphere. It should also serve as a warning to religious leaders that misconduct and inattention or disdain for the core tenets of faith will mean further decline in their congregants.

Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: No wonder there’s an exodus from religion

Henry Olsen: No, religion is not antithetical to liberalism

Elizabeth Bruenig: Talk of a rising religious left is unfounded. It already exists.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Pete Buttigieg has broken through the noise on community and religion

Michael Gerson: Politics is religion, and the right is getting ready for the end times