October 15, 2012
Why are so many Americans religiously unaffiliated?
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is on the rise. These unaffiliated, or "nones," currently number at 46 million—about one in five Americans. The rate of unaffiliated among adults under 30 numbers significantly higher at about one in three Americans.
Facing the seemingly imminent loss of the next generation, leaders of religious institutions have been left to grapple with the quickly tranforming landscape of religious life in this country. Religious News Services has asked a diverse range of religious leaders, as well as Tricycle's features editor Andrew Cooper, why so many Americans are walking away from organized religion. Andrew Cooper responded as follows:
I think the most significant factor in this is the acceleration of the American ethos of individualism. As in other spheres of life, when it comes to religion, there are benefits and drawbacks to this tendency. The valuing of critical intelligence, the rejection of sectarian dogma, openness to diverse viewpoints, the ability to adapt religious practices to modern life, the affirmation of life’s spiritual dimension—these are all positive things that are related to individualism. But if unchecked, the drawbacks of individualism can be serious: social isolation, narcissism in the name of spirituality, the weakening of the bonds to community and tradition that have always provided a context for spiritual experience, the collapse of coherent social life, the promotion of the good of the individual as the primary motivating value and reality. These tendencies don’t just weaken organized religion; they undermine our capacity live meaningful lives. For all their disagreements, all religions seem to recognize that we don’t just stand apart from others; we also stand as a part of others.
(Read the full article here, which includes a response from Bill Aiken of Soka Gokkai International.)
What causes and social factors do you think might underly the decline of institutional religious life in America? We've already witnessed a trend of general decay among our public institutions. Is the decline in affiliation with our religious institutions merely part of this larger decay, or might it herald a more thoroughly integrated, open-ended restructuring of religious and spiritual practice within public life?
Image: Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr