What's really happening to religion in America? Plainly stated: it's complicated.
Perhaps the title of the latest Pew Research Center report — "U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious" — provides the most concise overview, though there's some debate over what, exactly, is going on beneath the numbers when it comes to religious adherence and practice.
This was the second of two extensive religion reports released this year by Pew, with the data within providing a snapshot of the beliefs and practices of the American populace. In contrast, the first report titled, "America’s Changing Religious Landscape," was released in May, focusing mainly on overarching demographic changes.
The takeaway from both reports was that the American populace is becoming less religiously devout, but answering the "how" and "why" gets a bit more dicey, as pastors, faith leaders and sociologists all have theories as to what's really happening, culturally speaking.
Consider that the report released in May found a rise in the proportion of Americans who are not affiliated with a specific religion, with a substantial decline in the overall proportion of self-identified Christians.
The United States remains a majority Christian country, with 70.6 percent falling under the Bible-based umbrella in 2014. This is a decrease of eight percentage points, though, from 2007 when the study found that 78.4 percent of the nation embraced Christianity.
Based on margins of error, Christianity lost between 2.8 and 7.8 million followers over the past seven years, with the largest drop observed within mainline Protestantism, a group of denominations known for embracing more theologically progressive ideals.
Also, the proportion of people who are either atheist, agnostic or are simply disconnected from a specific faith increased from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014.
All that aside, the big question is: how should these changes be interpreted and processed?
Some contend that religion really is dying, while others believe that nominal religious folk are simply stepping away from embracing a sectarian label now that claims of religious adherence aren't as mainstream or socially beneficial as they once was.
To get to the bottom of the matter, TheBlaze asked Gregory A. Smith, associate director of research for the Pew Research Center, how he would respond to contentions from individuals on both sides of the theological divide.
As for atheists and other critics who might say, "Religion is dying in America and the Pew data is proof," Smith said that there are surely indications that important forms of religious observance are declining, but that it's somewhat of a mixed bag.
"The share of Americans who say religion is very important in their lives, for example, has ticked downward in recent years, as have the shares who say they pray daily or attend religious services regularly," he said, explaining, though, that these declines have been modest. "The data also show that most Americans continue to identify with a religious faith – mostly Christianity – and that this large group of religiously affiliated Americans is, by and large, about as religious today as in the recent past."
As for those who would take the opposing view — that religion isn't dying and that people who were never really all that faithful anyway are now simply dropping their labels, Smith also offered up a balanced rebuttal by pointing to data surrounding the "nones" — individuals who are either atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated, with this latter group accounting for the largest proportion of the three.
Unaffiliated Americans might believe in God, but they simply don't attach themselves to a specific faith.
"It is true that the growth of the 'nones' is concentrated among people with low or moderate levels of religious observance," he said, "But at the same time, the share of the population with low levels of observance has, itself, grown."
Smith said that the data shows that the biggest changes what it comes to decreases in beliefs surrounding God's existence do come from the religiously unaffiliated — or the nones.
"Among the 'nones' there has been a nine-point drop in the share who believe in God with absolute certainty (from 36 percent in 2007 to 27 percent today)," he said. "Indeed, there has even been a sharp decline in the share of religious 'nones' who believe in God at all, whether with absolute certain or with doubts; in 2007, 70 percent of 'nones' said they believe in God, while 61 percent say this today."
That said, Smith did see some signs in the data that, even among the religiously affiliated, there are decreases in belief surrounding God's existence, with the proportion of religiously affiliated Americans ticking down to 74 percent in 2014 from 79 percent in 2007.
Understanding what's driving changes in the religious landscape, Smith said, is predicated upon recognizing trends in American society overall, not simply changes unfolding in individuals' own lifetimes.
That in mind, Smith said that it does appear as though "generational replacement" is underway, meaning that, as time forges on, younger, less-religious Americans are replacing older, more adherent individuals.
"One of the major factors behind the growth of the 'nones,' and the declines in traditional forms of religious observance, appears to be generational," Smith said. "Older generations of Americans who were overwhelmingly Christian by affiliation and comparatively devout in belief and behavior are gradually passing away, and they are being replaced by a new generation of young people who are, on the whole, less inclined to identify with any branch of Christianity and more religiously unaffiliated than older cohorts ever were, even when they were young."
But it's not only young adults who are dropping Christianity, as Smith noted that it's happening across the board to Americans of all ages, races, genders and education levels.
Smith said that it's important to note that, though there are declines when it comes to proportions surrounding religious belief and practice, the number of highly religious adults is actually remaining pretty steady.
"For example, compared with when we first conducted our Religious Landscape Study in 2007, there are about as many American adults today who identify with a religion (e.g., Christianity) and who say religion is very important in their lives," he said. "What’s changed is that there has been very rapid growth in the number of people at the other end of the spectrum – those who are religiously unaffiliated who say religion is not important in their lives."
Smith continued, "The growth of this latter group means that the share of the population in the former is shrinking even as the number of them is holding quite steady."
TheBlaze has extensively covered the Pew Research Center's findings this year, highlighting some intriguing trends in the latest release, including: the increase in support for homosexuality among almost every Christian cohort and the growth of the “nones” to become the largest single religious group among liberals in America.
Pew's results also showed a key difference between Christianity and every major religion surveyed when it comes to opinions on whether God is a person with whom people can have a relationship or an “impersonal force,” with Christians standing out for being more likely to believe the former over the latter.
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