What's ahead for US as more Americans lose connection to religion

Young, white Americans are driving the trend, with as many as one-third saying they affiliate with no religion, a new survey says. It could affect notions of family and the shape of politics.

By , Contributor

One-fifth of US adults – including one third of adults under age 30 – identify as religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentage ever recorded by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religious and Public Life.

The rapid growth of religiously unaffiliated adults, which rose from 15 percent to 20 percent in the past five years, indicates significant changes in the American religious landscape, say authors of the report, “ ‘Nones’ on the Rise,” released Tuesday.

“What we are seeing here is long-term social changes in how people think about themselves, and how people talk about their connection to religion,” said Cary Funk, a Pew senior researcher, at the Religious News Association (RNA) convention on Oct. 6 in Bethesda, Md.

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The religiously unaffiliated – also called “nones” – are people who answer surveys saying they are atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular.” The report shows that the US population includes 13 million people who identify as atheists or agnostics and 33 million who identify with no particular religion.

This rapid increase of the religiously unaffiliated will have “vast implications” for society, including a “restructuring of American religion,” said John Green, a Pew senior researcher and director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, during the RNA convention.

As the population becomes less religious, there could be potential impacts on other social institutions such as family, marriage, education, and politics, said Mr. Green.

More than six in 10 religiously unaffiliated voters are registered Democrats and are more likely to identify as liberals: 72 percent support legal abortion and 73 percent support same-sex marriage, the report found.

If the unaffiliated population continues to grow, it may become the largest “religious” group for Democrats, Green said, which may create sharper divisions and tensions between political parties and also within the Democratic Party.

The demographic change of the religiously unaffiliated is broad-based – generally uniform across gender, income level, and education – but it is concentrated in younger generations and whites, said Ms. Funk. The growth in the unaffiliated population is driven by generational replacement as young adults gradually supplant older generations. Young adults today are more likely to identify as unaffiliated than previous generations were at the same age.

Even though people identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated, they are not wholly secular, said Funk. A majority consider themselves religious or spiritual in other ways: 68 percent say they believe in God, 37 percent classify themselves as “spiritual” but not religious, and 21 percent say they pray every day, according to the report.

The group is also not “hostile” toward religious institutions, and most say religion can be a “force for good” in society. Seventy-eight percent say that religious organizations “help strengthen community bonds,” and 77 percent say that they have a role in helping people in need.

The US is still a highly religious nation – 58 percent say religion is very important in their lives – compared with other industrial democracies, the report found. In Britain, for instance, only 17 percent of the population says that religion is very important in their lives, which is similar to France (13 percent), Germany (21 percent), and Spain (22 percent).

Religious affiliation in the US has remained constant among religious minorities, particularly Protestant blacks and Catholic Hispanics. However, the Protestant population decreased from 53 percent in 2007 to 48 percent in 2012, which marks the first time that percentage has reached below 50 percent.

The report’s analysis is based on dozens of Pew surveys conducted in recent years, as well as a new survey that looked into the beliefs and practices of the religiously unaffiliated.

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