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(RNS) The number of Americans not affiliated with any religion has hit an all-time high. We asked religious leaders to give us the reasons behind the eye-popping statistics.  

19 Comments

  1. Really good read, except for Russell Moore’s comments. As a 20-something, that sort of dividing of Christ’s holy church between his arbitrary appellation of “main-line” and implications of staid, dead faith and the apparently superior charismatic style are off-putting to say the least. Many dishes, one banquet.

  2. The root cause is simple. We are, as a society, beginning to look at the Bibles with undoctrinated eyes, and we are seeing that they are the mythological ravings of bronze age brutes. That’s no basis for a healthy society. We are looking for how we will have a society based on reality instead of on superstition, and any church, organisation or club that thinks it can continue to leech money from people by telling them lies – even old lies that were cash cows for centuries – will continue to fail.

  3. Main reasons:

    … Boredom.
    … Inability to see how a God who loves humanity would affiliate with religious people, identified mainly for their nasty crusades. Christians seem to think that sarcasm and contempt are gifts of the Holy Spirit.
    … Endless snarky comments/trolling from “Christians” on the internet.
    … Religion’s war on science: denying evolution, claiming human life begins at conception.
    … Nastiness towards gays. Weirdness of thinking that secular marriage has to conform to Christian notions of marriage.
    … Inability to separate civil rights from Christian doctrines.
    … Lack of loving respect towards neighbors.
    … Support for a politics of lying and bearing false witness toward neighbor.
    … War on women, hatred of women, contempt for women, fear of women. This is probably the biggest.

    … Knowledge of the Bible leads to disgust with the Bible. … Leviticus wants all adulterers killed, and females with pre-marital sex killed. … Joseph the “hero” while in Egypt used deceit to help Pharaoh steal the land from the small farmers. Some hero. … Jesus seems OK, but then in Revelation he comes with hatred for most of humanity. Yikes!

  4. Good wide range of perspectives in your roundup. Each of these quoted can also say, I have failed to communicate and transmit the values which have sustained me. Institutional religion comes to lack humility, which was part of Jesus’ critique of the institutions of his time.

  5. Good point, Marcia. Some religious leaders come close to saying that, but others seem to be blaming the culture, not themselves.

  6. Much of what I read in this atricle seems like word salad. One of the difficulties faced by the church is the abundance of information. Gone are the days when a parishoner can remain ingrown in the doctrine of a particular denomination. As a result, attempting to wrap your brain around the cocophany of conflicting, and in some instances harmful, doctrinal positions have forced many in the faith to abandon any defining characteristics of their faith. As one of my friends said recently about his church, “we just get together a love Jesus.” For all except the universalist, such ambiguity seems intellectually and epistemically inconsistent.

  7. The responses from the various religious leaders are fascinating. Some (like Rabbi Green) seem to offer thoughtful comments after serious reflection on the matter, while others (like Bishop Ricken and other conservative Christians) seem to circle the wagons and become defensive, blaming everyone but themselves for the decline of organized religion. I suspect there’s some truth in nearly every response from the religious leaders, but no single response completely addresses the decline. Although 60 years old, I’m one of the Nones, but can’t get religion off of my mind. I’m endlessly fascinated by the Big Questions and I believe that the religious/spiritual perspective has something important to say. Unfortunately, far too many religious groups are stuck in the past, place way too much emphasis on their scriptures and other ancient teachings, and refuse to rethink their doctrines in light of modern science and everything else we know about the world. If they refuse to change, the decline will continue and it’ll be a better world without them.

  8. I agree with Jon. Young people are questioning the authority of these century-old myths and are finding them wanting. During a Sunday School lesson, a one 8-year-old once asked me, “How do you do this stuff is true?” I didn’t and that was the problem. Young people want evidence to believe, not just reasons.

  9. Setting aside the “religious flavors” of each of those interviewed and their somewhat reasonable “excuses”, what do all of you think the results of the PEW study would have revealed if our society was not 27th out of 34 in the world in math and science? Secondly, how do you think the global “social networking” especially in the 15-25 year old range is affecting religions? Access to information and instant face-to-face contact with others around the world is transforming the “lowly resident of the mythic mind” into a critical thinker. This generation is discovering for itself, to the consternation of the religious community, that faith and belief is NOT superior to rational thought…”Crash go the Chariots!”

  10. The religious leaders above are engaging in the traditional religious doublespeak which to most of us lay people is unintelligible. Most cannot accept the decline of interest in acceptance of their snake oil. Young people are now generally better educated and more knowledgeable of the world in which they live. The United States is an anomaly within the industrialized world and religion is more prevalent here than, for example, in Europe. Religion is more evident in societies where there is no social safety net and where people feel less secure of their future. Modern societies like in Europe, Japan, Australia provide a degree of social protection for their inhabitants which less developed nation and the United States lack. Reliance on a mythical God figure isn’t necessary in the Sweden’s of the world. Perhaps, just perhaps, people in the United States are beginning to awaken.

  11. I thought The Rev. Jim Wallis hit upon the answer in a back-handed way. “When young people see the Gospel being lived out, when Christians are actually doing the things that Jesus taught us to do” he thinks that will be transformational, but the irony is that what “Nones” expect and it’s just not possible. The problem for American Christian Churches is that the “Nones” can read and have read the Bible. Religion has become a business. The tax-exempt status of religion in the United States has fostered a very profitable industry that heretofore hasn’t been questioned. Now, the “Nones” look around and see that time and money given to religion is used to proselytize, keeping the income stream going and little is actually done about the “loving their neighbors, caring for the poor and being peacemakers”. More and more people realize that if they want to see change, the effective change agents are no longer associated with organized religion. They see organized religion aligning itself with conservative political organizations instead of the older alliances with progressives. In a head long rush to enforce orthodoxy over abortion and marriage, they have forgotten their true roots. Christians have refused to deal with the Fundamentalist elements and have let themselves be painted with a broad bush of the hatred and literalism. Combine fundamentalism with the need to critically examine doctrines being pushed into political and scientific realms and it’s easy to see that “Nones” are finding it much easier to relegate much of the Bible to myth. Many of those interviewed seemed to think that we were moving into a new era. I think they are overly optimistic and in denial that there is a seismic shift taking place and soon there will be a secularism that will use the goals of the words of Jesus and other inspirations without the worship.

  12. I had to laugh at the comments from Russell Moore concerning “mainstream Protestantism”, especially his characterization of the Episcopal Church as “WASPy” or “tame”. I have recently made the commitment to join the Episcopal Church precisely because of its active social gospel, and its radical acceptance of the “other” as neighbor. The EC was the first church to treat AIDS as a medical, not a moral, condition; they were at the forefront on the ordination of women; they currently have an openly gay man as a Bishop, a woman as the Presiding Bishop, and at the most recent General Convention, rites for blessing same-sex unions were discussed and prepared.To me, this hardly qualifies as a stodgy, old-fashioned, moribund community of faith. Simply put, the EC attracts me because it does not expect nor require me to leave my brain outside its door, and allows me the space to respectfully disagree on issues without telling me I am not a “good Episcopalian” for dissenting. Yes, we “have” dissent, and that means we have dialogue about what it means to be an Episcopalian. We don’t silence dissent. We don’t excommunicate it. Jesus didn’t, either. As one of the biggest, loudest, proudest “nones” for many years, I am profoundly moved by what the Episcopal Church is as well as what it is not. I only wish I had found it sooner.

  13. The poetry and symbolism of religious practice, intended to take us to a supra-intellectual experience can be disturbing, can clash with our deepest modern values.Most liturgies require repetition of poetry using feudal imagery ; it takes exhausting exercises in simultaneous translation for Americans to serious bend knees to a King, a Lord, a King of Kings. Royalty can’t be taken seriously much less feared.

    Most of adults find it hard to worship a father and feel no guilt about that- much as they may agppreciate their own flesh and blood parent.

    Half of us work even harder to find validation of the Mother, the female leader, the woman’s soul in the ritual…
    ,
    If my Reform Jewish community had not dared to offend millions by introducing a gender-free liturgy, I would be wearing out from the effort of NOT really hearing; I would be a none, too. [ Still putting up with that chess game of thrones/sovreign/ruler etc. though,]

    Words matter to those trying to connect to meaning.

  14. I watch the 20-30 yr olds in our church. They sit together during the Sunday worship service, meet in their homes weekly, go to bars together (we happen to believe that a bit of alcohol doesn’t send people to hell). They help people in the rough side of town, pray together, study together, struggle together, do life together. Meanwhile, the 45 and above crowd (certainly not all, but many) sit on the back row, listen to a sermon, go home, and come back the next week and do it all over again. THAT is boloney! And boring.

    The “nones”, I think, are fed up with the religious baggage that surrounds organized religion. That baggage differs with people, but I think all “nones” would agree that organized religion has been answering questions they are not asking. We (organized religious groups) think they SHOULD be asking the same questions their parents asked, and maybe they should. But they’re not. They are not asking “Will I go to heaven when I die?” They want to know if we can help them find their place in the world NOW while they’re alive; help their sons/daughters get off drugs; teach them how to live life with their partners. They’re asking how they can join us in feeding the poor and/or healing the wounded and sick. Problem is, most of us aren’t doing any of this, either. From a Christian viewpoint, they are attracted to what Jesus and his disciples did (and I include praying for miracles), and we are not doing any of this. This generation has begun asking out loud what prior generations silently pondered. Not only are they asking, they’re taking action and either doing something about it or leaving.

    I think we’re living in a time of great opportunity. The “nones” generation is not necessarily uninterested, they’re just requiring action and proof! “SHOW ME!”, they demand. And we, the mothers and fathers will either shrink back, sit on the back rows and remain empty handed, or we will take this as our opportunity to discover why our faith has remained between our ears rather than an extension of our hands. “Such as I have I give you,” said Peter to a crippled man at the gate of the temple. This generation has risen up to say, “We don’t want your creeds, songs, or liturgies. We want to WALK!”

  15. Cheryl Petersen

    As a religion writer, I’ve come to many of these same conclusions. I also feel pollsters and polls don’t recognize what could be defined as religion and religious affiliation today. Similar to a person running out of coal as their energy source, and not seeing the oil in their backyard.
    As a student of religion (Christian Science), I withdrew church membership and freely experience my ability to express God’s healing and guiding love and wisdom, without the “permission,” or not, of an institution.
    Congrats to RNS for the excellent diverse compilation of thoughts on the Pew Poll.

  16. Why is “organized religion” declining?

    (1) It isn’t giving us what we want. For half a century at least mainline Protestant churches, which are down collapsing, have imagined that their business was “prophetic witness”—that is pushing social agendas that we didn’t want, and liturgy aimed at manipulating us into getting on board that we hated: boring, didactic, just plain crappy.

    (2) Clericalism. The assumption is that clergy are in a position to provide moral and intellectual leadership. That’s something that the educated upper middle class, the traditional constituency of mainline churches won’t tolerate. Why should we listen to these bozos? The very idea of a sermon—a lecture without even Q&A time is an insult to us.

    (3) The elimination of all the goodies of religion—mysticism, folk religion, rituals—and stinky, trashy, boring, didactic church services.

    (4) The association of “organized religion” with a moral code that we don’t accept—due in large part, to the visibility of Evangelical churches.

    The leaders of organized religion brought this on themselves in the 1960s, by their arrogance, moralizing and attempts to exercise “leadership.” We’re educated people in a world come of age: we don’t want, or need, clergy to tell us what to believe or how to behave. We need them to do the magic act and maintain church buildings.

  17. Individual secularization – we construct our own religious views without referring to religious authorities for guidance any more. We can think for ourselves.
    For years the church discouraged us to question, they failed to give us “real” answers to our everyday life. I think that was the beginning of the end for organized religion.

    = “Religion in secular society” (1966).

  18. Part of the problem is that we have Executive Directors and Chief Operating Officers. This fact indicates that we are defined by corporate Capitalism, not spirituality. Why would a young person want to become part of an institution that is organized like the one they work for that puts them in a cubicle and steals the proceeds of their labor?