In 2014, religiously unaffiliated now account for 23% of the US population. If their growth trend had remained steady, they are probably now close to 28% of the population. Their growth is spread out across gender, race and ethnicity. Yet, they do tend to be younger as 36% of younger Millennials (born between 1990-96) now identify themselves in that category.
A recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center asked those religiously unaffiliated why they were not religious. Interestingly enough, the top reason was not unbelief. Only 37% cited unbelief in God as one of their top reasons. Instead, the top reason for 60% of those interviewed was in the statement: “I question a lot of religious teachings.” Discontent with religious precepts on politics came in second, cited by 49% of respondents. Other reasons at the top included dislike for religious leaders and feeling that religion was irrelevant to them.
While politics did not come up on top, it is important to note its recent rise. In the 2014 landscape, the unaffiliated who were raised religious were asked for the reasons for leaving. The themes that emerged from their open answers focused primarily on lack of belief, disenchantment and anti-institutional feelings came on top. Thus, it is striking to see that in the 2017 survey, political views came up as a top reason for 49% of respondents since it did not register prominently in 2014. This may have something to do with the 2016 election and the recent religious conservatives’ alignment with Donald Trump.
While politics showed a spike, it was not enough to beat the top reason. Respondents’ answers suggest that religion is undergoing a crisis of credibility for this population segment. It is unfortunate that surveyors did not ask any followup questions which would help shed light on which religious teachings are the most questionable. Given the tenor of religious discourse in issues of the day, it is likely that the unaffiliated take issue with their views on human sexuality and science. On the first topic, religious conservatives have been the most prominent opponents of same sex marriage. The second stems from a centuries-old battle between science and religion that can be traced back to the emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution and beyond. In either case, religious leaders have the work cut out for them if they plan to reach out to those who have left the faith. Yet, if current trends persist, they may not have a choice but to re-visit their teachings, especially in the areas of science and sexuality.
Reality Changing Observations:
Q1. Do you consider yourself religiously unaffiliated? If so, why?
Q2. What can religious leaders do to address the growing credibility crisis in the eyes of Millennials?
Q3. Should organized religion change its approach to human sexuality and science?