Can You Believe It?

We are accustomed to in-your-face piety from those who oppose same sex marriage or abortion, those who favor prayer in the schools and scripture in the public square. It can seem as if aggressive religiosity is on the rise, but maybe this represents only a rearguard action by a dying breed.

Recent news from Pew Research, its “Religious Landscape Study,” shows a shrinking number of believers, especially among the young millennial generation. A pair of authors, Dr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Pope, suggest one cause may be the angry politicization of faith by some sects. They regard some of those who have fallen away from religion to be religious refugees.

“Refugees are people who’ve been forced from their homes – for fear of persecution. This describes the unchurched.” Thus, just as Reagan complained that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, rather it left him, many now seem to feel they haven’t left their religion, but it has left them by becoming more narrow and radical.

The Landscape Study interviewed 35,000 people, an unusually large sample, and found changes since a similar study in 2007. Among those identifying as Christians, Evangelicals have gained a scant 1.5% to 24.5%, mainline churches are down 4.3% to 14.7% and Catholics are down a substantial 10.9% to 20.8%. In all, 71% of the respondents called themselves Christian, 6 percent belonged to all other religions and 23% professed no religion. And since there is considerable pressure in this society to embrace faith and a stigma attached to disbelief, one suspects the actual number of unbelievers may be even higher.

Many of those who do identify as Christian may be far from zealous. The phenomenon of C and E Christians was common when I was young, that is people who had been raised in the church but who had a lackadaisical faith and only showed up on Christmas and Easter. We also know that the pews are full of people who are there more for social or business reasons than for any spiritual purpose. They regard church as a club or a place to network.

For those interested in the decline of faith, the details of the study are even more illuminating. Those 18-29 are more likely to be without religion, 35% as opposed to 23% in the society as a whole. Thus, over a third of the rising generation no longer identifies as religious. One might be inclined to regard this as the triumph of reason over superstition, but further demographic subdivisions of the study call that into question.

The unreligious are more likely to have gone beyond a high school education than Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelical Christians and Catholics, but to have about the same level of education attainment as Mainline Protestants and considerably less education that Mormons, Jews and Hindus. A similar profile is seen in regarded to affluence. More people without religious affiliation come from households earning over $50,000 than Evangelicals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, about the same percentage as Muslims and Buddhists but they are less affluent than Mormons and Jews.

The conventional wisdom might suggest that the less educated and less affluent would be more religious, but the evidence of this study doesn’t support that entirely. But it also does not justify the belief that the well-off and highly educated are more religious.

It is not impossible that the educated and affluent are more likely to live up to expectations, to observe social norms, to care about their standing in the community, to strive to fit in, to conform to the expectations of their class. For some, their religion may be as much about behaving in an appropriate fashion as a matter of faith.

Similarly, the older generation may be more religious because they grew up when there was a greater expectation of religious participation. Old habits die hard. And, just as there are said to be no atheists in foxholes, the older one get the more the looming grave may encourage participation in the rites of piety, if only to hedge one’s bets.

No doubt believers will take this poll as evidence that the world is in decline and the younger generation heading straight to purgatory. But perhaps, as happened in the cases of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the coming out of the closet by a few prominent unbelievers (Bill Maher, Penn and Teller, Mark Zuckerberg, Brad Pitt) has encouraged others to own up to their actual feelings, to admit to their unbelief. Lack of faith may be just another taboo that is now being questioned.

The religious have long claimed the First Amendment as their own, but Freedom of Religion also ought to mean the freedom not to believe in religion, to be free from the religion of others. Indeed, that was the origin of the amendment: To assure that America would not be like England, France or the rest of the European countries in which the state compelled the embrace of one religion over another and levied a hated tithe on those who didn’t share that faith. Apparently more and more young Americans are availing themselves of their constitutionally guaranteed right to not believe.

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