Another Pew Survey: The numbers of religiously-unaffiliated spike again

Here is the story from Rachel Zoll of the AP. Full results of the survey are available here.

About the “nones,” now approximately 20%: They may believe in God; they may pray; they may be “spiritual but not religious.” But they do not affiliate with any religious organization nor do they want to:

Pew found overall that most of the unaffiliated aren’t actively seeking another religious home, indicating that their ties with organized religion are permanently broken.

Alan Jacobs ponders the significance of this:

The question I would ask is this: Has there been an actual increase in religiously unaffiliated people, or do people who are in fact unaffiliated simply feel more free than they once did to acknowledge that fact? My suspicion is that until quite recently a person born and baptized into the Catholic church who hadn’t attended Mass in fifteen years would still identify as a Catholic; but recently is more likely to accept his or her unaffiliated status. There is less social (and perhaps also psychological) cost in saying “I have no particular religion that I’m connected to” than there once was.

That is, the poll may reflect not a change in behavior but a change in how people think of their behavior — a change that brings their self-descriptions more closely into line with reality. And that wouldn’t at all be a bad thing: there’s always something to be said for the removal of illusions, for “reveal[ing] the situation which had long existed.”

Most striking about all this are the generational shifts. Among “millennials” the numbers are shocking. Of younger millennials (those born between 1990 and 1994), 34% claim no religious affiliation. Older millennials are only slightly more likely to be involved in organized religion (30% now compared to 26% in 2007). The number of unaffiliated Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers has also increased; the latter in spite of recent articles trumpeting the return of Boomers to church.

What are we to make of this? I think it’s right to say that part of it is that there is less stigma attached in saying one does not attend church. On the other hand, I suspect that a willingness to self-identify as non-religious reflects behavioral and attitudinal change.
Growing numbers of Americans simply don’t seem to care about institutional religion. It is irrelevant to their lives.

This certainly has enormous implications for denominations and local congregations. If large numbers of young people have no inclination to get involved in church, no interest in attending services even on Christmas or Easter, or being married in a church, that means they are seeking meaning in other places and in other ways than through traditional religious language and categories. It may be that they are not even asking questions about themselves, their lives and the world that can be engaged in religious terms.

This is what “post-Christian” culture looks like. It’s not simply a matter of a decline in prestige, power, and influence for the churches. If the trend continues, how many young adults will claim no religious affiliation 10 years from now? 50%? More?

How do we proclaim the gospel in this context? What does it mean to be church? For Anglicans, it won’t be enough to say that we offer a “via media” or that “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” People won’t understand what the former means and won’t even see the latter sign.