Trend toward religious 'nones' will leave voids in society
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life this week put an exclamation point on a trend that portends sweeping changes in American culture, religion and politics.
In its study, "Nones on the Rise," Pew reported that 19.6 percent of Americans now claim no religious affiliation and that for the first time, fewer than half of Americans, 48 percent, are Protestants. That's down from 53 percent just five years ago and from 66 percent in the 1960s.
According to Pew, Catholics are the largest denomination at 22 percent of the population. But if the "nones" were a religious denomination, they would be second and just under 20 percent.
Implications of the trend are indistinct but are certain to radiate into elements of society beyond religion alone. The trend mirrors the ongoing decline in marriage rates, for example, and the ongoing increase in the number of Americans who are unaffiliated with any political party.
By international standards, the United States remains a religious country - far more so than countries of Western Europe, for example. And even a majority those who told Pew they claimed no specific religion said they believe in God and otherwise were spiritual. Their aversion appears to be to the structures and strictures of organized religion rather than to faith itself.
Implications could be vast. Religion is one of the foundations of the nation's traditional social structure, playing huge roles in education, social services, and many other aspects of civic life. Even if large numbers of people continue to profess to have faith, their departure from organized religious practice inevitably will affect those related institutions, a trend we've already experienced locally.
National and regional politics also are likely to be affected. The decline in Protestant affiliation was among mainstream and evangelical denominations, the latter of which have become a fundamental block of the Republican Party political base, for example.
The decline in religious affiliation poses a great challenge for the affected denominations, which will have to figure out how to revive interest without diminishing their core principles.
For the nation the trend is a step into historically uncharted territory that might leave voids in society beyond diminished religious practice itself.