Friday, March 13, 2009

The State of American Religion

Last week the findings of the comprehensive American Religious Identification Survey were released, and few of us were surprised to learn that the number of Americans identifying themselves with a specific religious tradition – or with any religion at all – has declined significantly over the past 25 years. Among other findings are these:
So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%) that this category now outranks every other major religious group except for Catholics and Baptists.
All Mainline Protestant denominations have seen sharp declines.
Many American Christians are not quite sure what to call themselves, using terms ranging from “Evangelical” to “born-again” to “non-denominational.” Taken all together, they represent only 14% of the population.
Jewish numbers have declined (now 1.2%) while Muslim numbers (0.6%) have grown less than many had expected.
Vermont has now passed Oregon as the least religious state, with more than a third of the population claiming no religion at all.

Self-described Christians still make up nearly 70% of the population, but many of them are Christian only in the broadest sense with a very limited understanding of the beliefs and practices of that faith. Said the survey’s co-author: “For many, religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment.” Perhaps the most extreme story included came from a staff member in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. A couple came into his office with a list of questions posed by their teenage son, beginning with “What is that guy doing hanging up there on the plus sign?”

I find in the survey at least as much cause for hope as despair. Certainly religious tolerance has grown – far fewer people claim that their religion is the only true faith, or the only one that can “get you into heaven.” And while the survey found that there is still a Christian “culture war” being waged over issues like abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research, there are fewer persons at the extreme ends of the spectrum. We are learning, in other words, to respect those who hold views different from our own and to look for points of agreement.

It can be argued that in a society where everyone is “vaguely religious,” religion becomes less dynamic, less faithful and less interesting. If fewer people claim to be Christian, perhaps we will have higher expectations of what it means to live like one. And that could only be a good thing.

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