Nearly one in three (32%) American Millennials (18-29) are living without religion in their lives. That’s a major finding of a just released study from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Stunning is that just four years ago that number stood at one in four (25%). Indeed, those classified by Pew as “Nones” (I call them “Transcenders”) across all age groups have risen from 16% to nearly 20% of the population in the same four year period. Aside from other (non-Christian) religions (6%), only Transcenders have grown in the entire religious landscape (and they have grown much more). Religion’s decline is most noteworthy among the Protestants who, at 48%, no longer have majority for the first time since the founding of the Republic.
|Pew Center proprietary research|
In reporting its Landmark Study four years ago, Pew researchers pointed out that being unchurched did not necessarily mean that the “nones” had permanently given up on religion. Even today only about 6% consider themselves atheists or agnostics. Two-thirds have some god belief, though less than half of them a belief of absolute certainty. I have always been skeptical about poll responses to the “God question”. How can one really get a totally candidate or uncolored answer in an environment where God is so entrenched in the language (God bless you, God bless the United States of America)? Invoking God has become pro-forma, almost a marker, a passport, of good citizenship. How much substance that has is questionable. So more significant to me is that in the 2012 study, 88% of respondents say they are not looking for any religious affiliation. In short they are satisfied to be declared Transcenders and are not turning back.
Alienation from religion seems to be accelerating. It took ten years (1998-2008) to move eight percentage points from 8-16%, but only four to move up from there to 20%. Neither the absolute numbers nor the trend surprises me at all. Both are consistent with my own study of the subject over the last decade and with my own experiences. They are exactly what prompted me to write my book on the Transcenders.
The Pew researchers list a number of reasons for the increasing abandonment of religion — political, social and ideological — all of them confirmed in part by aspects of their own study. I have suggested that those who have moved beyond religion are responding to a series of “alienators”. For sure, some people have left religion behind because they no longer believe in its teachings or never did. The predatory priest scandal and cover-up in the Catholic Church, the draconian behavior of Taliban-like Muslims and the land grab by Orthodox Jews on the West Bank have turned people off inside and outside of those religions. Attitudes of sexism (tokened first by a he-god), homophobia and the denial of science may also play a role. That religion separates us at a time when the world is opening up and becoming more inclusive can't be discounted. But no single alienator or group of alienators fits all. These are very personal decisions.
The point is that Pew’s research quantifies the large number of us that now live without religion and affirms that this number is growing. Regardless of the specifics that any one of us could site, this is not some overnight wonder, but long in the making. Alienation or at least distancing has been going on below the radar for as long as I can remember. When I served as a rabbi in the 1960s, it was clear that a good percentage of our congregational members had what was in all honesty a most tangential relationship to religion. They may have sincerely and proudly identified — most especially for Jews in the immediate post Hitler era — but they attended worship infrequently, often but once a year. They may have paid lip service to their faith, but functionally it was remote from their daily lives.
To say they lived a lie would be unjust, but inescapably their interaction with religion can only be described as inconsistent. This reality was there for anyone to see and both they themselves and more importantly their children and grandchildren were first hand observers throughout. Now in a time less hospitable to charade, the proverbial chickens have come to roost. I see it as only a delayed but inevitable reaction. Just consider how this Pew study fits into its logical place for you, globally and perhaps personally.
There is also a political side to all of this, a story that remains pretty well in the background. Over the past decade, religion and specifically the religious right has received an inordinate amount of attention and airtime. God and religion have been treated as the unquestioned default. Just think back a few weeks to the big deal made of the Democratic platform not including God in its language. A rapid-fire insertion aborted a potential cause célèbre. To some considerable degree this is all based on an American religiosity myth sustained by the self-interested religious or those intimidated by threats of retribution. It may surprise you in that regard that Pew’s numbers show as many Transcenders as White Evangelicals, the first on the numerical rise and the second in some decline.
Aside from covering stories on this and other Pew studies, or similar ones by other organizations, there is little public discourse about Transcenders. The Presidential and other campaigns pay huge deference to religion and religious groups but give at best (and infrequently) a nod to “nonbelievers”. Transcenders, Pew suggests, skew more Democratic than Republican, but there are certainly people in both parties who have openly or functionally walked away from religion. What is clear is that no one seems to be taking account of this important group of voters. These are people who are beginning to say, “what about me and my beliefs?” The present neglect may have consequences in the future.
Much has been made since the election of Barack Obama about “change”. The word means different things to different people; for some it is merely a catchy slogan. Others, myself included, take change very seriously. All these millions of Transcenders represent a substantive change in the American landscape. As Mrs. Willy Loman might put it, “attention must be paid.”
I call them Transcenders. To brand them nonbelievers is to assume religion and its particular belief system the human default. Worse it suggests that those who have left religion behind lack beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. For more read my book.