The once-overwhelming Christian majority in the U.S. is shrinking, and this appears to be part of a worldwide trend. The number of Americans who identify as "non- affiliated" is growing. While young adults comprise the largest unchurched group, this trend is also occurring across the entire population spectrum --- men, women, college grads, high school or less, whites, blacks, Latinos. But the United States is still home to more Christians than any other nation. Almost seven of ten Americans today still claim Christianity as their religious faith. But this number was reduced by almost eight points in just seven years, from 78.4% to 70.6% in the 2007-14 timeframe. In that same period the unaffiliated, including atheists, agnostics or "nothing in particular," climbed more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.
The decrease in the Christian share of the population is led by membership losses in the Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations. Both groups have declined by more than three percentage points since 2007. And some non-Christian sects are growing, but at a snail’s pace. However, there are more Muslims in America today than Episcopalians (my faith).
Traditional Jews are disturbed to learn that many Jewish young people describe themselves as ethnic or secular, but not religious Jews. Equally shocking is the fact that almost half of today’s Jews marry outside the faith. To some Orthodox and Conservative Jews assimilation is feared second only to annihilation.
It is generally accepted that the American south is the most openly religious section of the world’s most religious large nation. This is based on several contributing factors which I will not attempt to address in this limited space. But in researching for this column I uncovered a disparity that disturbs me and for which I do not have a ready explanation. In a Georgia population profile (Podunk) by religious affiliation the largest constituency by far in Catoosa County was the 44,462 out of 63,948 inhabitants listed as "unclaimed." That’s particularly surprising in a community dominated by Baptists (over 80% of Catoosa church-goers), a denomination known for its relentless evangelizing. Walker County, with a slightly larger population, has a substantially smaller unchurched population of around 30,000, or 46% compared to Catoosa’s 66%. But that’s hardly anything to brag about. What’s going on here? Are we a community headed toward irreligion?
I sincerely hope not. Although down from a high of over 90% believers in the mid-twentieth century, religious Americans are still in the 70%-plus range and are far more religious than today’s Europeans. In some European countries, Sweden for example, less than 20% of the people even profess belief in a supreme being. But to me it requires more blind faith to be an atheist than a believer.
Of the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the histories of Judaism and Christianity are punctuated by periodic upheavals; heresies, revolutions, reforms and revivals. Islam, to its detriment I think, has remained relatively static since its inception in the seventh century. The Muslims could use a Martin Luther. Out of these cathartic revolts has usually emerged a stronger, more relevant theology, one better equipped to deal with the challenges of a changing world. Let’s hope that’s what is presently going on in Christianity and Judaism. If not, we might be in trouble.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at email@example.com.