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Column: Here’s the church; here’s the steeple. Open the doors — where’s all the people?

BY   September 23, 2015 at 10:57 AM EST
From 2012 to 2014, 7.5 million people severed religious ties. Photo by Luis Mariano González and Getty Images

From 2012 to 2014, 7.5 million adults severed religious ties. Photo by Luis Mariano González and Getty Images

Sometimes it seems as though America is hemorrhaging religion.

According to the 2014 General Social Survey, 7.5 million adults — about 3 percent of all adults in this country — severed religious ties between 2012 and 2014. Think of that. In 2012, 7.5 million people checked a box identifying themselves as “Conservative Christian,” “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “Jewish,” or “Other religion.”

Then, just two years later, they checked the one marked “No religion.”

The study was the latest proof of religion’s dwindling popularity in this country. Since 1990, all the big hitters in American religion (to wit: Christianity) have registered major losses. In 1990, 86 percent of the American public considered themselves Christian, compared with 71 percent today. During that same period, the percentage of Americans unaffiliated with religion (also known as “nones”) soared — from 8 percent to 23 percent.

Catholicism has been the hardest hit. Statistics provided by CARA, a nonprofit research center at Georgetown University, portray an exodus from the church of near-Biblical proportions. Although there are just as many parishes today as there were in 1965 — around 17,500 — the number of those parishes without resident priests has multiplied several times over, from 500 to 3,500. The number of adult Catholic baptisms has fallen from 126,000 to 38,000; the number of Catholic marriages has declined from 352,000 to 154,000; and the number of Catholic nuns associated with the church has dropped from 180,000 to just 50,000.

It brings to mind the second half of a nursery rhyme I heard as a kid, usually recited with fingers laced: Here’s the church/ here’s the steeple/ open the doors/ where’s all the people?

So what accounts for this rather dramatic “crisis” of faith? Why are so many Americans abandoning their pews?

This all comes at a time when Pope Francis (perhaps not coincidentally) has taken solid steps to build bridges between believers and nonbelievers. At a mass in Rose in 2013, Francis spoke of spreading a “culture of encounter” where Catholics would judge people not on their beliefs, but on their good deeds.

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” Pope Francis told his followers. “We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good. We will meet one another there.”

So what accounts for this rather dramatic “crisis” of faith? Why are so many Americans abandoning their pews?

Barry Kosmin, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture and author of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), observes that religious convictions fluctuate on a societal level in direct relation to a perceived need for external comfort. It’s the reason “comfortable” people tend to be less religious than those whose lives are in chaos. Kosmin cites affluent Japan, where some 84 percent of the population claims no personal religion, versus impoverished Haiti, where the figure is 1 percent.

“The more your life is helpless,” he said, “the more you look for external assistance.”

But the economy is not the only factor in religion’s losses.

Phil Zuckerman, one of the country’s foremost authorities on atheism in the United States and the author of “Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions,” points out that people walk away from religion for anthropological, psychological and sociological reasons. Advances in science, globalization and exposure to people of different faiths (vis-à-vis the Internet) has begun to outweigh stagnant religious dogma.

It also may be interesting to note what isn’t generally considered among major factors in religion’s decline — and that’s high-profile atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Bill Maher.

Furthermore, Zuckerman said, many Americans are tired of the sanctimonious dictates, forced morality and herd mentality that often accompany Western religions. There is growing distrust in religious institutions, as well — caused, for example, by clergy abuse scandals. And there is a backlash against the Religious Right and its steadfast opposition to gay rights, women’s rights, reproductive freedom, secularism in school, scientific progress, environmentalism and even the Separation of Church and State.

It also may be interesting to note what isn’t generally considered among major factors in religion’s decline — and that’s high-profile atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Bill Maher. While such nonreligious superstars certainly do help mobilize people and provide a national platform for that particular point of view, demographers seem to agree that celebrities are not pulling the train, so to speak. They reflect a loss of faith in this country, but they are not responsible for it.

In fact, if anyone is responsible for leading the charge, it’s America’s young people. Zuckerman said younger generations are increasingly turned off by religion’s role in vitriolic politics, world conflicts and domestic acts of terror.

The General Social Survey found that 33 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds preferred no religion, whereas only 5 percent of Americans over 75 years of age made the same claim. That trend holds true for Catholicism. Just 17 percent of Catholic adults are under the age of 30, compared with 35 percent of religious “nones.”

“Younger generations’ stamina for the endless disputes of religion,” Zuckerman said, “is waning fast.”


Editor’s note: The NewsHour is hosting a series of columns on faith this week.

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