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Why Americans are devout and diverse but not divided

They are increasingly tolerant of other religions and persuasions.

By Stephen Bates / May 12, 2009

Henderson, Nev.

In the Adderall age, many Americans are flitting from faith to faith, or from faith to no faith. The Pew Center on Religion and Public Life recently released a poll showing that about half of adults have changed faiths since childhood. Moreover, some 16 percent of Americans say they no longer identify with any religion, compared with 7 percent who were raised without one.

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Those are just some of a passel of trends that have been reweaving the nation's religious tapestry. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned against defining deviancy down. In a variety of ways, we're defining deity down. Have we gotten so skittish about giving offense that American faith is all but meaningless? Then again, the US is one of the most peaceful nations when it comes to religion. That speaks volumes.

For almost all groups, religious intermarriage has nearly doubled since the 1950s. Though two-fifths of Americans claim to have attended worship services in the past week, scholars believe that between a quarter and half of them are bearing false witness. Speaking of the Commandments, one poll found that 42 percent of Americans could name five of the 10 – whereas another poll found that 43 percent could name three of the five cartoon Simpsons.

What's going on? "The idea of a plural society is so new to Americans that many will not even understand the term," Christian Century magazine said back in 1951. "It will be even more difficult to arouse their concern over the development because they will find it difficult to believe that any such thing can happen here." The headline read "Pluralism – National Menace."

It happened here, and, as Christian Century editors fretted, it hasn't been altogether good news for the Good News. Using 1990 data, economist Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., studied the effects of people of the same faith clustering together. For every 10 percent decline in religious density, by his measure, attendance at worship services dropped by 8.5 percent. Religious homogeneity boosts churchgoing. And the United States has become the most religiously diverse nation the world has ever known.