Religion Finally Dead?
by Donald Devine
Issue 217– December 12, 2012
The New York Times, the Washington Post, USAToday and the rest could not wait. Even the non-news TV news had a big story to “celebrate” preparing for the holidays. A new Pew Center study proved Americans were abandoning religion, finally fulfilling the enduring leftist hope that this anachronism would soon die out completely in the last advanced nation holding these old superstitions. So the headlines and TV tags celebrated the “declines” in religious attachment in the U.S. as the good news for that day.
Mass media, of course, do not have time for the details. What the Pew study actually reported was that the percentage of Americans saying they were atheistic, agnostic or “nothing in particular” religiously had increased from 15% in 2007 to almost 20% this year. That this meant 80% still identified themselves as religious somehow did not receive much play from our media friends. Almost invisible was that actual atheists were only 2% and agnostics only 3% of the public, which has remained constant for decades. The growth was almost all among the “nothings” or what Pew labeled the “unaffiliated.”
Those who said they were “nothing in particular” are a very interesting group. The unaffiliated are more socially liberal on issues such as abortion and same sex marriage but about as conservative as the population on whether the government should be larger with more services or smaller with fewer services. Those who vote go about two-thirds for the Democratic Party although blacks and Hispanics have greater religious attachment and whites less. A surprising 28% of the unaffiliated said churches were not strict enough to win their affiliation. Two-thirds criticized religious groups as too politically involved and 67% said they overemphasized rules too much. Still, 51% of those not religiously affiliated thought religious groups played a positive role in protecting and strengthening social morality.
What was in the Pew report but mostly missing in the media coverage was the surprising finding that:
many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.
Not only do one-fifth of the religiously “unaffiliated” pray every day, twice as many pray monthly or more often than monthly. Five percent actually attend religious services weekly or more and 22% attend monthly or yearly. These are hardly your basic village atheist much less intellectual ones.
The younger population is the leftist hope for the future with a total of 32% identified as unaffiliated compared to only 7% among those over 65 years, with the number of affiliated decreasing each generation in between. Pew reported that those attending religious services “weekly or more” declined from 39 to 37% between 2003 and 2012, those attending “monthly or yearly” from 34 to 33% and those “seldom or never” up from 25 to 29%. Yet, the so-called changes are minuscule all within the poll measurement error margin. More important, Pew found it necessary to add:
To be sure, the United States remains a highly religious country – particularly by comparison with other advanced industrial democracies – and some measures of religious commitment in America have held remarkably steady over the years. The number of Americans who currently say religion is very important in their lives (58%), for instance, is little changed since 2007 (61%) and is far higher than in Britain (17%), France (13%), Germany (21%) or Spain (22%). And over the longer term, Pew Research surveys find no change in the percentage of Americans who say that prayer is an important part of their daily life; it is 76% in 2012, the same as it was 25 years ago, in 1987.
So it is not as yet time to call religion in America dead. Compare it to the most popular secular events nationwide. The TV networks claim 111 million watched the football Super Bowl last year, or 48% of the adult population (although minors undoubtedly are counted in the total). About 52% voted in the presidential election. However, the Gallup poll reports that 62% of adult Americans say they went to church last Christmas. And they had to get off the couch to do so.
Donald Devine, the editor of ConservativeBattleline On Line, was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981-1985 under Ronald Reagan and is Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies.