Many Americans Are Saying Goodbye to Religion, but Not Faith

Polls show the unaffiliated are much less antagonistic toward religion than once thought.

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Signs abound that more Americans are leaving Christianity and embracing a secular worldview. The cover of Newsweek recently proclaimed "The End of Christian America." Books like The God Delusion and God Is Not Great have topped bestseller lists. David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association, which is working to organize nonbelievers into a national movement, says, "Our membership has doubled in the last five years—and we've been around since 1941. We're at an all-time high."

Polls have reinforced the anecdotal evidence. A Trinity College report last month found that Americans who decline to associate with any religious tradition now constitute the fastest-growing segment of the national religious landscape. They represent 15 percent of the adult population, up from 8 percent in 1990.

But all that may be misleading. A survey out this week from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life challenges the conventional portrait of America's unchurched as a burgeoning society of proud secularists, atheists, and agnostics. Yes, the religiously unaffiliated are the fastest-growing religious group, the survey reports, accounting for nearly 1 in 6 Americans. But it turns out that the unaffiliated are much less antagonistic toward religion than previously thought.

The new Pew survey finds that most Americans who were raised in religiously unaffiliated homes now belong to one religious tradition or another. And only a distinct minority of those who've left organized religion say that modern science has disproved religion, as many atheists believe. "There's this naive secularization theory that says when somebody becomes unaffiliated, they stay there because they've become adults and found that religion is silly," says Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion professor who analyzed the Pew survey. "But it turns out that you call them back the next year and they've joined a Lutheran church. They were just looking for the right fit."

The Pew survey finds that rather than leaving religion over a loss of belief, most of the formerly religious were responding to what it calls "disenchantment with people and institutions." For instance, more than half of Americans who were raised Roman Catholic or Protestant but have left the faith say that religious people are judgmental, hypocritical, or insincere and cite that as a major reason for leaving. Among that same group, almost half complain that religious organizations focus on rules at the expense of spirituality. And roughly 40 percent of unaffiliated former Catholics and Protestants said their spiritual needs weren't being met.

The fact that so many of the religiously unaffiliated say they have spiritual needs makes it difficult to see them as poster children for a booming secular class. Indeed, the Pew survey finds that only a third of former Catholics and Protestants who are now unaffiliated say that modern science proves that religion is superstition. Roughly 4 in 10 of the unaffiliated, meanwhile, say that religion is still at least somewhat important to their lives. And roughly a third of those who were raised Catholic or Protestant but are now unaffiliated say they have just not found the right religion yet. "Part of the story here is the continuing shift from religion to spirituality," says Prothero. "It's the personalization of religion at the expense of organized religion."

That trend has emerged in other recent surveys showing that more-bureaucratic and hierarchical traditions, such as the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, are hemorrhaging members in the United States while highly personalized evangelical and nondenominational congregations are growing. But the move from religion to spirituality has also fed a surge in Americans identifying themselves as "spiritual but not religious," with more than 5 percent of Americans now describing themselves that way.

To be sure, the Pew report did show that straight-up secularism is also on the march. About 4 in 10 former Catholics and Protestants who are now unaffiliated, for instance, say they don't believe in God or the teachings of most religions. The Trinity College survey showed that while only 1 percent of Americans call themselves agnostics, 10 percent hold agnostic beliefs, meaning that they either don't know if God exists or believe there is no way to know.