Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Losing My Religion?

The popular press was filled with articles yesterday proclaiming that 15% of Americans in a recent survey identified themselves as having "no religion" and that this group represented the fastest growing group in every state:

"A wide-ranging study on American religious life found that the Roman Catholic population has been shifting out of the Northeast to the Southwest, the percentage of Christians in the nation has declined and more people say they have no religion at all.

Fifteen percent of respondents said they had no religion, an increase from 14.2 percent in 2001 and 8.2 percent in 1990, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

Northern New England surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the least religious region, with Vermont reporting the highest share of those claiming no religion, at 34 percent. Still, the study found that the numbers of Americans with no religion rose in every state.

"No other religious bloc has kept such a pace in every state," the study's authors said. (Read the whole article here)

For geeky students of religion like myself, surveys such as this one are quite fascinating. As always the question is how one interprets the findings. One way is to see it as an acceleration of secularism in American culture. However if one considers findings from the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life's Religious Landscape Survey a more complicated picture emerges. About 16% of respondents to that survey identified themselves as "unaffiliated" with any particular religion. However even the unaffiliated felt that religion was "very important" (16.%) or at least "somewhat important" (25%) in their lives and 17% of the unaffiliated participated in religious services at least "a few times a year" (Read more about the survey here). It is not clear whether the "no religion" and the "unaffiliated" in these two surveys represent a similar population but I wonder if the issue is that people identify less with what religion has come to represent to them, rather than rejecting religion outright. I'm reminded of a comment made by 'Abdu'l-Baha:

"The...teaching of Bahá'u'lláh is that religion must be the source of fellowship, the cause of unity and the nearness of God to man. If it rouses hatred and strife, it is evident that absence of religion is preferable and an irreligious man better than one who professes it." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 181)