America’s Crumbling Religious Landscape

Melissa Barreiro/Trumpet

America’s Crumbling Religious Landscape

Traditional religion is giving way to secularism. How are shifting religious fault lines reshaping the country?
From the August 2015 Trumpet Print Edition

America’s religious landscape is rumbling with change. A new Pew survey draws a map that reveals traditional Protestant denominations and Catholicism slipping significantly in numbers, while a group known as the nones—adults unaffiliated with organized religion—is rapidly rising on America’s horizon. Both trends should sound sirens that real danger is ahead for American culture and society.

Prior surveys showed that America’s nonaffiliated population rose quickly in the 1990s and early 2000s. Some experts believed this growth would level off. Yet the 2014 Pew survey shows the nones’ numbers continue to rise sharply, from 16 percent in 2007 to almost 23 percent in 2014. That’s a steep climb. Even more striking is the data showing that among Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996), nones now comprise 36 percent.

During this same time, mainline Protestant denominations declined from 18.1 to 14.7 percent, and the Catholic population dropped from 23.9 to 20.8 percent. That means nones now outnumber both of these groups.

Why are Americans, especially our younger generation, turning their backs on organized religion? And why should this matter to you?

Not Just a Problem of Affiliation

America was founded on traditional Christian beliefs and symbols. Several of our national holidays such as Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July extol Christian values: giving thanks to a benevolent and authoritative God; self-sacrifice for a just cause; the protection of liberty for all people. When I was growing up in the 1950s, people often went to church on Memorial Day and Thanksgiving. Today, these values are often viewed as simply American civil values, but they are rooted in biblical teachings understood, taught and promoted by America’s forefathers.

When almost 56 million American adults opt out of organized religion, this represents a massive change in Americans’ spiritual life.

Some religious experts take the Pew survey as evidence of a problem with religious affiliation more than with religious practice. They rely on the fact that the U.S. is still home to more professing Christians—seven out of 10 Americans—than any other country in the world. But we need to dig deeper and ask some hard questions about these conclusions.

Considering the conditions extant in our chaotic world—the real threat of nuclear World War iii; the American and international global economic crisis; the ever present threat of terrorist attacks; the potential for violent, city-destroying race wars—you would think affiliation with religion would increase, not decline.

We need to look at history to understand what is happening in American religion today.

During the Secular Boom

In 2008, Trinity College completed the final of three surveys designed to track changes in the religious loyalties of the U.S. adult population within the contiguous 48 states for the years 1990 to 2008. The survey, titled “American Religious Identification Survey” (aris), was one of the largest demographic polls in history, involving telephone interviews with 280,000 respondents. Completed in 1990, 2001 and 2008, it was also the largest survey of American religions to date.

It was this survey that revealed the rise of thenones. The “nones were the only religious bloc to rise in percentage in every single state, thus constituting the only true national religious trend,” writes James Emery White in his book The Rise of the Nones. The survey showed the decade of the 1990s “was a period of significant shifts in the religious composition of the United States.” White refers to the 1990s as the “secular boom.”

aris shot holes through the conventional thinking of many religious leaders that young people often stop attending church, sow their wild oats, but eventually return to their flocks once they become married and have children. This scenario may have been true for the Baby Boomer generation—but it is not happening among the Gen Xers or Millennials.

Yet it was the 2012 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” that really got the attention of sociologists and church leaders. Why? The nones had not stopped booming. And the Pew 2014 survey confirmed that their numbers are still growing! America is drifting further and further from its traditional Christian roots.

The Nones Speak

The number of nones has jumped from 8 percent in 1990 to 23 percent in 2014. And the pace is accelerating. Is this a problem?

In an effort to stop the “young and unchurched” from becoming the “old and unchurched,” national studies have been conducted with teens and people between the ages 18 and 23 in order to give church leaders a thorough understanding of the religious thinking of the nones. Analyzing the results of the studies, researchers have placed the emerging adults studied into one of six major categories.

About 60 percent of those studied comprise the first three categories: those still committed to, those favorable to, and those open to organized religion. The other 40 percent of the young adults say they are either religiously indifferent (25 percent), feel religiously disconnected (5 percent), or feel completely irreligious (10 percent). Of these six categories, the largest group is the religiously indifferent. Religion just does not matter much to them. “Yet indifference was not relegated to this group. In truth, indifference permeated all of the categories in one form or another,” James White tells us.

If our future generation is indifferent to religion, there must be a cause. We need to know the cause.

Backlash to Bad Religion

One of the truly great things about America has been the constitutional protection of religious freedom. The First and 14th Amendments guarantee individuals the right to believe and worship as they choose without fear of persecution or threat of civil discrimination.

However, over the centuries, America was transformed from a mere safe haven from persecution to the world’s religious marketplace. Our land is filled with a multitude of Christian churches, both denominational and homegrown nondenominational. Both have generated discontent, disagreement and disunity, not being able to agree on doctrine, or practice. Buddhist and Hindu temples along with other similar centers of American-improvised communal societies dot the landscape. The number of Islamic mosques is growing on American soil.

The American ideal of religious freedom has an incredibly positive value. But at the same time, the seeds of religious deceit, division and rebellion lie hidden within this constitutionally mandated freedom.

For various reasons, Americans regularly exercise their right to shop around for another religion more to their liking, or some just invent a new one. Now our young generation is opting to have no religion at all. At this point, very few of the nones plan to return to any flock.

The Core Problems

Nones complain of three main problems in modern American religious denominations.

1. The bloated request for and the misuse of money. One of the most famous religious organizations found guilty of the misuse of charitable donations was the ptl Club television ministry founded by Jim Bakker. “More were disgusted by Bakker’s materialism and the financial fraud that eventually sent him to prison than by his sexual mishaps,” writes James White. The misuse of money has led many to no longer trust America’s mainstream Christian denominations.

2. The involvement of the religious right in politics. Beginning in the late ’70s, conservative Christian clerics urged members to involve themselves in the political process in response to the rising tide of liberalism that began in the ’60s. They believed that a strong and organized voice in politics could prevent more social disintegration. Socially conservative candidates were promoted, financially supported and backed up by the voting power of conservative Christians. The Religious Right became identified with the Republican Party, and flexed its muscle during the 1980 presidential election, ensuring that Ronald Reagan became president.

Initially this partnership was seen as a good thing. However, by the 1990s (the same time the nones came into view) many other Americans grew skeptical of the relationship between politics and religion. Gallup polling in the mid-’80s showed that most Americans began to oppose the idea of religious groups campaigning against specific candidates. However, most agreed that religious leaders should speak out on the moral implications of public issues—something that has always been an honored tradition in American history.

3. Christianity has become too critical, judgmental and pushy. Nonaffiliated young Americans are blunt in their views of modern Christians. The most often used words to describe todays Christians are: abrasive, self-righteous, anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, out of touch with reality, insensitive, boring, intolerant of others’ faith, and confusing. Many young nones hold a strong anti-Christian bias. Earlier this summer Fox News featured a story about a young software engineer who was denied employment with a high-tech firm because employees—his future co-workers—discovered he was a Christian. They petitioned their management that the man not be hired.

Nones’ Faith: ‘Our Own Little Voice’

If we are honest with ourselves, American Christianity is guilty of even more significant and tragic errors than the three most often discussed by the nones. Too many Church leaders are guilty of souring people on God and religion. That is the subject for another series of articles, or even books. Yet the existence of the nones—now the second-largest religious contender on America’s landscape (Evangelical Protestants rank first)—shows that current Christianity has enough cracks and fissures that a hard shake could bring down the house.

The 2012 Pew Forum, “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” tells us that the typical none is male, a liberal or moderate and a Democrat, not necessarily an atheist, not hostile to organized religion but doesn’t want to belong to one, supportive of abortion and same-sex “marriage,” white, and more than likely lives in the Western United States. When interviewed, many nones insist they still believe in God. Yet the foundation of their belief is definitely not traditional—or biblical. The nones have a murky belief system that is simply a reflection of the secular society around us.

Three out of 10 believe in a spiritual energy in physical objects and in yoga as a spiritual practice. Twenty-five percent believe in astrology and reincarnation. Nearly six in 10 say they have a deep connection with nature and the earth. Three out of 10 say they have felt in touch with someone who is dead. Fifteen percent have consulted a psychic. It would not be correct to say that the nones are a part of the New Age movement or any other religious movement. Essentially, they believe that there is a lot of truth to go around, so they pick and choose what truth they want to believe.

In a study titled “Habits of the Heart,” sociologist Robert Bellah features an interview with a woman named Sheila. “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s ‘Sheilaism.’ Just my own little voice,” she declared. Sheila gives us a clear insight into the shallow religious thinking of most nones.

Herein lies the danger for nones. When people pick and choose truth—then essentially there is no truth! What truth do nones pick and choose about God? We can be fairly certain of what truth they would not pick: Nobody would choose a God of power and authority who requires obedience to spiritual law and adherence to absolute truth! Nones don’t care a whit about absolutes. Nones would only choose a God who thinks just like them.

Actually isn’t this the number one problem in our American and Western society as a whole? We have interpreted freedom of religion, and freedom in general, to mean that we can pick and choose to believe what we want, and act like we want—without regard to law or constituted government authority.

Those of us of the older generations must accept the responsibility that we opened the door for the rise of the nones. Now that the door is open, it is unlikely we can stem the tide from flooding in.

Every person in this world needs absolute truth. We all need more right religion and a lot more knowledge of the true God—not none! Our youth are going in the wrong direction, and as they mature, they will take society with them.

This trend is not good. Yet there is hope.

Religious Change Is Coming

God gave the Apostle Paul exciting prophetic insight into our chaotic world. “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people,” he wrote to his beloved son in the faith, Timothy (2 Timothy 3:1-5; English Standard Version). These few verses are a perfectly accurate picture of American society today. We may claim to be a Christian nation, but we are not living up to Christ’s high standards.

Verse 5 in particular describes the nones. They can say they believe in God and assume the appearance of godliness, but they deny the very power of God.

Here is the good news. “But they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men,” continued Paul (verse 9). Jesus Christ is going to return and bring an end to all the folly we have created in religion, government and society. There is a new world coming that will be full of peace, right religion and satisfying happiness.

Until that day, you as an individual can get on the right track spiritually. Jesus Christ promised that His Church would never die (Matthew 16:18). Christ’s one true Church is alive and well on Earth today.

If you have been called by God (John 6:44), you can find that Church. How? Get to know the Bible well. Use the Bible to measure your doctrinal beliefs and religious observances. If the Bible does not support what you believe and do, flee from it! Then, use the Bible as your compass to search out and guide you to Jesus Christ’s Church.