On Saturday we referenced a recent study released by PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute), called “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back.” The study looked at a clear trend that must surely get our attention if we are concerned with the state of the church in the U.S. Let’s talk about it a bit more today.
The study noted that from 1991 to today, there has been a consequential shift in reported religious affiliation. In 1991, 6% of Americans identified themselves as unaffiliated (marking “none” as their formal religious identity). In 2016 that number has grown to 25%. Fully one-quarter of Americans claim no formal religious identity, which means that this group is now the single largest “religious group” in the U.S.
This data includes the following facts: “Today, nearly four in ten (39%) young adults (ages 18-29) are religiously unaffiliated — three times the unaffiliated rate (13%) among seniors (ages 65 and older). While previous generations were also more likely to be religiously unaffiliated in their twenties, young adults today are nearly four times as likely as young adults a generation ago to identify as religiously unaffiliated.” (emphasis added)
Furthermore, the growth of religiously unaffiliated people is made up mostly of those who have left religion — “the vast majority of unaffiliated Americans formerly identified with a particular religion.”
This trend is seen most clearly with regard to white Americans. Non-white religious groups have remained fairly stable, but white Christian groups, led by Catholics, have experienced the largest exodus of formerly affiliated.
Another disturbing trend is that those who have left religion present as being less likely to re-engage with a religious affiliation:
In the 1970s, only about one-third (34%) of Americans who were raised in religiously unaffiliated households were still unaffiliated as adults. By the 1990s, slightly more than half (53%) of Americans who were unaffiliated in childhood retained their religious identity in adulthood. Today, about two-thirds (66%) of Americans who report being raised outside a formal religious tradition remain unaffiliated as adults.
One important reason why the unaffiliated are experiencing rising retention rates is because younger Americans raised in nonreligious homes are less apt to join a religious tradition or denomination than young adults in previous eras. About three-quarters (74%) of Americans under the age of 50 who were raised nonreligious have maintained their lack of religious identity in adulthood. In contrast, only about half (49%) of Americans age 50 or older who were raised unaffiliated still identify that way.
Perhaps the most interesting and widely-reported finding of the study is that the most common cited reason for disaffiliation was a lack of belief in the teachings of religion.
The reasons Americans leave their childhood religion are varied, but a lack of belief in teaching of religion was the most commonly cited reason for disaffiliation. Among the reasons Americans identified as important motivations in leaving their childhood religion are: they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings (60%), their family was never that religious when they were growing up (32%), and their experience of negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people (29%).
Fewer than one in five Americans who left their childhood religion point to the clergy sexual-abuse scandal (19%), a traumatic event in their life (18%), or their congregation becoming too focused on politics (16%) as an important reason for disaffiliating.
Most Americans who have left a religious tradition do not identify a particular negative experience or incident as the catalyst. Relatively few Americans who are now unaffiliated report their last experience in a church or house of worship was negative. In fact, more than two-thirds (68%) of unaffiliated Americans say their last time attending a religious service, not including a wedding or funeral service, was primarily positive. Only one in five (20%) unaffiliated Americans say their last visit to a religious congregation was mostly negative.
Unaffiliated Americans do not, however, generally view religion as something essential for themselves or society. About two-thirds of them say that “religion causes more problems in society than it solves,” and the same number don’t think religion is necessary in order to raise children with good moral values.
The study further broke down the identity of unaffiliated Americans into three sub-groups.
Rejectionists, who account for the majority (58%) of all unaffiliated Americans, say religion is not personally important in their lives and believe religion as a whole does more harm than good in society. Apatheists, who make up 22% of the unaffiliated, say religion is not personally important to them, but believe it generally is more socially helpful than harmful. Unattached believers, who make up only 18% of the unaffiliated, say religion is important to them personally.
Also, we must note that the idea that people are “spiritual” but “not religious” is not reflected by the results of this study.
The survey finds little evidence of a separate mode of “spirituality” distinct from “religiosity,” either among religious or religiously unaffiliated Americans. Rather, measures of traditional religiosity are positively correlated with self-identification as a “spiritual person.” Compared to other Americans, the religiously unaffiliated are considerably less likely to identify themselves as spiritual. Only four in ten unaffiliated Americans identify themselves as being very (14%) or moderately (26%) spiritual. Nearly six in ten say they are only slightly spiritual (26%) or not at all spiritual (32%). In contrast, more than two-thirds of Americans overall say they are very (30%) or moderately (38%) spiritual.
There are a few other aspects of the study, but these are the most pertinent with regard to the concerns of this blog. You can click the link at the beginning of this post and read the entire study report for yourself.
Let’s discuss these findings today.
Tomorrow, I want to look at the decline of American religion from another angle — one mainline denomination and a recent report on their churches and their supply and demand for clergy.
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