Why a decline in American religion matters to everyone
The landscape of American religion is changing. In recent decades, immigration and migration have led to greater religious diversity. The largest religious tradition in America is also not immune, as an increasingly global Christianity has redefined the styles and cultures of many local faith communities. New forms of religious institutions are also taking root as Americans are feeling freer to practice their faith in a myriad of ways. There is a growing diversity and vitality within American religion. At the same time, there are also signs of decline. And in recent years, the narrative of decline may have grabbed greater attention.
I am often pulled into debates around what the “rise of the nones” means for religious institutions, giving, and civil society. These “nones,” those religiously unaffiliated Americans identifying themselves as “none of the above” on the Pew Research Center’s polls, now make up 23 percent of Americans. They make up over 35 percent of American millennials. This is a tremendous jump over the last decade (from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014). For many faith communities that are experiencing decline in attendance and giving numbers, these trends are obviously disconcerting, but what might they mean more broadly for American society?1
A first question might be to ask, who are these “nones”? A little under half of these “nones” are atheists or agnostic, but the other half are simply nothing in particular. In a new study released just last week, Pew digs more deeply into these categories. A large percentage of current “nones” were raised within a faith tradition. In their research, Pew discovered that of those “nones” raised with religion, “about half (49 percent) indicate that lack of belief led them to move away from religion.” Another 20 percent express an opposition to organized religion generally. Still another 18 percent are simply religiously unsure. And 10 percent of those “nones” initially raised with a religious affiliation are now classified as “inactive.”Often the reason given is simply busyness – too busy to attend or look for a faith community.2
So the “nones” are growing and they are a diverse group, but how do they interpret broader issues of social engagement? Another recent Pew poll, focused on the presidential election, noted that “nones” make up one-fifth of all registered voters, the same as white evangelical Protestants. If white evangelicals continue to appear to vote solidly Republican, a similar story appears to be true for “nones” and Democrats.3 Might religious “nones” function as a voting bloc akin to evangelical Protestants in past elections? This growing group does share many commonalities on cultural issues, but it is still too early to predict their political persuasions.
The larger question for many philanthropic scholars, however, goes even deeper. What do these changes mean for the future of civil society? Some have equated the “rise of the nones” alongside a parallel decline in religious institutions. Of course, this decline is not only relegated to faith communities. It has also been felt by countless civic institutions, such as Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis chapters, and other community groups.
Is the decline in religious affiliation simply following social trends, or is something bigger at play as well? Religious activity in America has long been strongly associated with civil society and philanthropy. Not only has it consistently remained by far the largest sector of philanthropic giving, it also it key motivator for many to engage in a variety of service and community engagement. Religious institutions are also key providers of social services. So the question for nonprofits of all kinds is: can organized religion decline without affecting civil society? Can civil society decline without affecting organized religion?
To help us answer that question, Lake Institute is hosting Alan Cooperman, Pew’s Director of Religion Research and a lead author of the recent reports on the “nones.” As our 2016 Distinguished Visitor, and a national figure at the center of these debates, Cooperman will explore what the rise of the religious unaffiliated means for all of us. If you are local to Indianapolis, please consider coming to Cooperman’s lecture, Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 5:30 pm. You might also consider attending a talk he will offer on Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 1:30, addressing the role of religion in the 2016 presidential election. Both events are on the IUPUI campus, free, and open to the public. If you cannot make it, we will hope to make the talks available online.
Lake Institute is committed to research around how faith, work, and education impact emerging generations in their giving and service. For example, in partnership with the Emerging Leaders Study, we will be hosting focus groups alongside our Distinguished Visitor events. As we continue to research these questions, we hope you will be a partner with us in these conversations.
1 Michael Lipka. “A closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious ‘nones.’” Pew Research Center. 13 May 2015. Online.
2 Michael Lipka. “Why America’s ‘nones’ left religion behind.” Pew Research Center. 24 Aug 2016. Online.
3 “Evangelicals Rally to Trump, Religious ‘Nones’ Back Clinton.” Pew Research Center. 16 July 2016. Online.