SMITH | Growing minority of Americans identifying as religious ' - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SMITH | Growing minority of Americans identifying as religious 'nones,' survey says

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By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A growing minority of Americans refuses to identify with traditional religion, a trend particularly strong among young adults, while self-identified Catholics and more liberal Protestants are declining as shares of the population.

That's according to a massive survey released today by the Pew Research Center of more than 35,000 Americans, an unusually large sample with a margin of error of less than 1 percentage point.

The poll confirms what Pew and several other polling firms have found since at least the turn of the century — a growing minority of "nones," or Americans who choose none-of-the-above from a menu of religious affiliations.

The unaffiliated are nearly 23 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2007, the last time Pew did a similarly vast survey. They include atheists and agnostics (7 percent) and those who say they're "nothing in particular" (16 percent) — some who are thoroughly secular and others who practice a do-it-yourself spirituality.

In Pennsylvania, the unaffiliated rose to 21 percent from 13 since 2007, mostly at the expense of Catholics (down to 24 percent from 29) and Protestants (to 47 percent from 50).

"We've known [the unaffiliated population] has been growing for a couple decades," said Greg Smith, lead researcher for the Pew report. "The pace it continues to grow is very striking."

There are plenty of caveats.

The United States still has the world's largest Christian population at an estimated 173 million.

Evangelicals (25 percent of the population) and historically black Protestant groups (7 percent) are roughly holding their numbers, and independent churches are picking up some of the slack from declining Protestant denominations. Immigration is fueling growth of small groups such as Muslims, Hindus and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Among other religions, 1.9 percent of Americans identified themselves as Jewish, a figure that was about the same as 2007; Muslims were 0.9 percent, up from 0.4 percent; Buddhists held steady at 0.7 percent; and Hindus were 0.7 percent, up from 0.4 percent.

Even among the "nothing in particular" crowd, nearly half say religion is important to them. That corroborates earlier studies of "spiritual but not religious" people who reject traditional labels but might pray, read the Bible, meditate or consult crystals and clairvoyants.

But whether Americans have a religion or not, they are more likely to think it unimportant now (22 percent) than seven years ago (16 percent).

And the unaffiliated are up among all income and educational levels. More than one-third of adults under age 34 are unaffiliated. And adults under 25 are even less religiously connected than their counterparts were in 2007.

"We've now reached a point that the religiously unaffiliated are more numerous than Catholics [21 percent] and mainline Protestants [15 percent]," Mr. Smith said in an interview.

Pew is not alone in charting these trends. While some major polling firms have found lower numbers of unaffiliated, others have matched Pew's numbers, and all agree the unaffiliated are on the rise.

The Pew report doesn't go into why this change has happened, but in recent years scholars have tied it to such things as a backlash against religion in politics, declines in social bonds of all types (such as civic organizations) and delays in marriage.

While many adults find their way back to church as they marry and start families, the unaffiliated are up from the last survey at every age level, even senior citizens (11 percent, up from 9).

The numbers don't surprise the Rev. William Carl, president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where future pastors are increasingly taught to launch new ministries rather than hunt for the dwindling numbers of full-time pulpits.

"I grew up in the '50s, when everyone went to church," he said. "It isn't that way anymore. You can no longer say, 'If we have the building, they will come.' You've got to go where people are."

Andy Hoke, a self-described humanist and an organizer of Sunday Assembly Pittsburgh — a North Shore congregation that offers fellowship without religion — said the information age has enabled more people to research religions and question their claims.

"People become more aware that it's something that can divide and even cause hostility," he said.

Some say it's premature to proclaim the demise of religion.

"We've got a lot of people for whom 'religion' means 'that thing I grew up with that my parents made me do,'" said Gordon Melton, a professor of American religious history at Baylor University. But many still pray or practice modern spiritual concoctions that "look like religion to me."

He added that many newer Christian church networks as well as "esoteric" groups, such as New Age, often don't show up on surveys.

"We're living in one of the most religious countries that has ever existed," he said.

The decline among self-identified mainline Protestants tracks those denominations' own declining membership numbers.

But the decline in people identifying as Catholics comes even as the church claims a growing membership since 2000, with 67 million on its rolls. At the same time, the church's own numbers also show declines in baptisms, school enrollment and other indicators.

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