Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
A new study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found that for the first time in U.S. history, the number of people claiming no religious affiliation has stripped the nation of its long-standing Protestant majority.
The Associated Press (AP) is reporting that the growth in nondenominational Christians who are not classified as Protestant has spiked along with the number of Americans who claim they have no religion. The study, released yesterday, found that Americans who say they have no religious affiliation rose from 15 to 20 percent in just the last five years.
The growth in unaffiliated Americans spans a broad range of groups: men and women, college grads, those without a college degree, those earning less than $30,000 and/or more than $75,000. The biggest jump in “nones” has been among whites with one-fifth describing themselves as having no particular religion.
Experts are still debating whether or not people who say they don’t belong to a particular religious group should be considered secular because this category includes atheists as well as people who say they believe in God, who pray daily or say they consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Pew categorized them this way because they found that most of the unaffiliated are not trying to find another religious “home”, which indicates that their ties to organized religion have been permanently severed.
The growth in the number of those who are unaffiliated with organized religion has long worried religious leaders in America, including the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI has dedicated his pontificate to a new evangelization and will open a Year of Faith tomorrow that will look to bring straying Roman Catholics back into the Church.
“The trend also has political implications,” the AP reports. “American voters who describe themselves as having no religion vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Pew found Americans with no religion support abortion rights and gay marriage at a much higher-rate than the U.S. public at large. These “nones” are an increasing segment of voters who are registered as Democrats or lean toward the party, growing from 17 percent to 24 percent over the last five years.”
Thus, the religiously unaffiliated are becoming as important a constituency to Democrats as evangelicals are to Republicans, Pew said.
Researchers are still struggling to find reasons for the steady exodus from mainstream churches. While most cite a rise in secularism, there are other causes to be considered.
“Part of what’s going on here is that the stigma associated with not being part of any religious community has declined,” said John Green, a specialist in religion and politics at the University of Akron, who advised Pew on the survey. “In some parts of the country, there is still a stigma. But overall, it’s not the way it used to be.”
Most alarming of all the findings is the growth in “nones” among youth. A third of all adults under the age of 30 now say they have no religious affiliation, compared to just nine percent of people over age 65.
” . . . (Y)oung adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives,” Pew writes.
These numbers should motivate all of us to use the graces to be won during this Year of Faith to evangelize our neighbor and look for ways to bring the light of Christ into the lives of those around us.
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