My Facebook feed filled up on Tuesday with links to a new Pew survey on the religious identification of Americans, which shows that about 20% of the country now identifies as having no religious affiliation. But let’s be careful not to equate no religious affiliation with being agnostic or atheist. In fact, those who identify as agnostic or atheist are still under 5%.
And a lot of those who are religiously non-affiliated are still religious or “spiritual” (I really hate that word):
However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds 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.
And these trends are especially strong with younger people. But Alan Jacobs wonders if there actually are more people who are leaving traditional religion behind, or if there are just more people admitting to it these days:
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’s a good question, but not one that is easily answered. I suspect he’s right, though, about at least a portion of the increase. And that’s another reason why being out as an atheist is important, because it makes others feel safe enough to be honest about what they think and believe.