May 13, 2015

Fewer people religious; America religious as ever

A key aspect of American religiosity is how Americans choose religious identities.

Often, they reject the religious identities they were born with. They choose new ones. They make new ones. Sometimes, as with the "nones," but also with some converts to Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, they choose religious identities premised on rejecting the entire regime of religious choice.

In America, even not choosing a religious identity is culturally meaningful as a choice. Religious affiliation is rarely simply inherited. It's a decision. And the decision is personal and meaningful, culturally, about who an individual is and wants to be.

A new Pew Research Center study on America's changing religious landscape mostly confirms what we already knew about the trends in the religious choices that are being made now. Trends continue to trend: the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated "nones" are growing and the Protestant majority is disappearing as the mainline churches decline dramatically. The top line of the report has been widely reported, including by the Washington Post, Religion DispatchesReligion News Service and the New York Times.

One thing that is easy to miss, with these reports, is that the types of religious changes people are making might be less important than the fact of change.

This Pew study is basically an update, but it also deepens our knowledge on this point, providing some useful information on this aspect of American religious culture. The new study has more information than I've ever seen before on religious switching.

The big story of religion in American culture right now is that the default Protestant consensus is disappearing. This has been apparent for a while and this data makes it even more clear. Buried here in the data, however, is another story about an American religiosity that is as vibrant as it ever was.

Pew's study can be read here.