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Christians in the United States will be the majority for many decades to come, but their numbers are slipping. According to a Pew Research Center study, the percentage of people identifying themselves as Christian has fallen from 78 percent in 2007 to just more than 70 percent today; more than one in five Americans are not affiliated with any religion at all. These trends are not new, but what is new is that their rate of change is accelerating, and, these shift are taking place within all age groups in all regions of the country. We look at how religious affiliation in America is changing.
- Alan Cooperman Director, Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.
- Ronald Lindsay President and CEO, Center for Inquiry.
- Father James Bretzke Professor of moral theology, school of theology and ministry at Boston College.
- Kim Lawton Managing editor and correspondent, Religion & Ethics News Weekly.
Poll: Are You Religious?
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back next week. So we aren't as Christian as we used to be and a growing number of us say we aren't part of any religious group at all. Those are two of the major conclusion from a new study by Pew Research on religion in American today.
MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me here in the studio to talk about how our religious affiliations may be shifting and what these trends may mean, Alan Cooperman of the Pew Research Center and Kim Lawton of Religion and Ethics News Weekly. Also, by phone, from Madison, Wisconsin, we have Father James Bretzke of Boston College and from a studio at WBFO in Buffalo, New York, Ronald Lindsay of the Center for Inquiry. Hello to all of you.
MR. ALAN COOPERMANHi, Tom.
MS. KIM LAWTONHello.
FATHER JAMES BRETZKEGood morning.
MR. RONALD LINDSAYHello.
GJELTENAnd we want to hear from you. Do you still worship? Do you consider yourself religious? Has your religious identity changed since you were a child? Call us with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-800-433-8850. Email us, email@example.com. Reach us via Facebook or Twitter. And this is a subject that we are convinced you have a lot of thoughts about so we're giving you yet another opportunity to weigh in.
GJELTENWe're doing a poll on "The Diane Rehm Show" today. We want to know about your relationship with religion. Take the poll at drshow.org and we'll have some of the findings, some of your feedback later in the hour. Okay. Alan Cooperman, give us some more headlines from this study. I think one of the ones that certainly jumped out to a lot of people is that we seem to be less Christian that we used to be.
GJELTENAnd, of course, a lot of people insist the U.S. is a Christian nation. How much less Christian are we?
COOPERMANWell, in percentage terms, we've gone from 78 percent Christian to about 71 percent Christian in the space of just 7 years, so that's...
GJELTENIn terms of whether we identify as Christian or not.
COOPERMANExactly. This is simply an answer to a question, what is your present religion, if any. And then, people can identify as Christian in any number of ways. But the share who identify as Christian is down and the share who don't identify with any religions, that is who say they're atheist or agnostic or a large number say they're just nothing in particular and that group is up and is rising quite rapidly.
GJELTENAnd Kim Lawton, we were talking about this just before the show began. You partnered, your organization, Religion And Ethics News Weekly, partnered with Pew a few years ago addressing this question and you found, even then, a couple, two, three years ago, that people were drifting away from an identification with Christianity.
LAWTONWell, and what we -- our part of it -- Pew obviously has a whole lot of information. We looked at some of the beliefs of these people who say that they're not affiliated with any particular religion. And one thing that was striking, they're not all atheists. In fact, the majority of them say, at that point, said they do believe in God or a higher power, but they just don't work, you know, they don't affiliate, associate with a particular institution.
LAWTONAnd so, you know, it's a complex situation because it's not all completely secular, but it's very different from how, you know, things used to be.
GJELTENSo Alan, how confident are you in these data? As Kim said, you found some preliminary indications a couple of years ago, but this is a much larger sample, isn't it?
COOPERMANWell, the great value of what we've done here is we have two massive surveys, 35,000 interviews in each one, 7 years apart. And they're basically twin surveys, methodologically almost identical. Question wording, absolutely identical. And so it really gives us a great apples to apples comparison, which, frankly, in the polling world we often don't have.
GJELTENWere you prepared for these findings or did they startle you with the sort of the speed of the change, the speed of the sort of shift, as it were.
COOPERMANYou put your finger exactly on it. Because of the work we've done, because we monitor these kinds of things all the time, the overall trends, the rise of the so-called nones, N-O-N-E-S, the unaffiliated and the decline particularly of Protestants were trends we'd known about and seen in the past. And I would have been surprised if they hadn't continued. But the pace at which the change is continuing, a pace of approximately 1 percentage point per year over this period is really exceptional.
GJELTENAnd it's across all sectors, across all age groups, gender groups, education groups, regional groups and yet, you found that among young people, the trend is particularly noteworthy.
COOPERMANYeah. I can't emphasize this enough. People have a tendency to think, oh, this must just be happening on the East Coast or in big cities or this must be something that's happening to our children because they're being brain-washed by professors in colleges. But actually if the brain-washing is taking place, it's taking place amongst high school students as well.
COOPERMANAnd the decline in share of Christians and the rise of the unaffiliated is taking place in all major regions of the country, including in the Bible Belt. And it's taking place among older people as well as among younger people. It's taking place among blacks, Latinos and whites. This is really broad social change. But you are right. It is particularly pronounced among younger generation.
GJELTENFather Bretzke, you're a professor of moral theology at Boston College and I have a simple question for you. Do you believe these data?
BRETZKEWell, I believe the data represents how people felt or identify with institutional religion. And I just finished teaching. I'm teaching this semester at Marquette University in Milwaukee to undergrads and I would say that the data would reflect the composition of my classroom. I also would agree that I think most of the students in my classes would say that they believe in God and the usual mantra we hear is I'm spiritual, but not religious.
GJELTENAnd but I think that one of the findings that caught my attention is even within that group, and Alan correct me if I'm wrong, even within that group of those who say they are not religious but spiritual -- or not religious, more and more are saying that they're actually atheist or agnostic, right, Alan?
COOPERMANThat's correct. The share of the unaffiliated who say they are atheist or agnostic is growing and the share who say they are just nothing in particular is declining among those who are unaffiliated. Let me also just quickly say that the notion that the unaffiliated are somehow religious just as much as everybody else in the country, as the affiliated, but religious in some different way is just plain wrong.
COOPERMANThe data do not support it. We've looked very carefully at this, Kim and I. Our teams looked at this. A few years ago, we did a major report on it. The unaffiliated are less religious than the affiliated in basically every way you can measure. Not only in convention religious terms, like how often they go to church, temple, mosque, but also in things like how much of they feel a sense of wonder, how often they think about the meaning and purpose of life and most importantly how important it is to them to be part of a community of people just of shared beliefs and values, not even religious beliefs and values.
GJELTENFather Bretzke, I actually invite you to speculate a little bit here. Alan Cooperman has all the data and Kim has data as well. You have experience with young people in your classrooms and you think about these issues. So do you have any explanation or a sort of additional thought about what we're seeing in this country?
BRETZKEWell, I think one of the things that might help explain some of the data is I do believe that we have an extended period of adolescence in the American society, going into the 20s now. And I think it's part of adolescence that you have to rebel against all of -- well, many of the things of your parents and your elders and organized religion would be an easy thing to rebel against, especially when you go to college.
BRETZKEThat's the one time where mom and dad are no longer with you on a daily basis and religious observance falls off dramatically in college, even at Boston College where we have 12 masses a day, we hardly are getting more than a small percentage of students. So I think it's part of the transfer to -- adolescence into adulthood. I also would observe that later on, when people get married and have children -- I work in a parish in Bedford, Massachusetts, on weekends -- that's when they tend to come back to the church because they want their children to have some sort of religious education.
GJELTENWell, Father Bretzke, are you alarmed by the numbers in this study?
BRETZKENo. I'm not alarmed because I do believe basically in the long term viability of the church, the long term faithfulness of God to us and so I believe that most of these people are essentially people of good will. And as long as you are a person of good will and remain open, I think, ultimately, you will be in a position where you could come back to organized religion, faithful practice when it seems to be right for you and it would meet some of the needs that aren't met on a daily basis in your life otherwise.
GJELTENRonald Lindsay, at the Center for Inquiry, you put out an interesting memo yesterday on your reaction to this. You see these findings as good news. Tell us why.
LINDSAYYes. We welcome the information that came out in this report. We're an organization that promotes science and secularism. We're not, as we're sometimes portrayed, as a anti-religious organization, but we do want to see the influence of religion on public policy reduced. And because of that, we look at the rise in the unaffiliated as a very welcoming trend, not just because the number of atheists and agnostics are increasing, but also the people who are nothing in particular, as they say because as has already been indicated, these people have moved away from organized religion.
LINDSAYThey're no longer looking to the church as an authority on issues. These are issues they feel comfortable in deciding themselves. Organized religion is no longer speaking to them. And I think, overall, that's a good trend. If I could just address one thing the Father said.
GJELTENVery quickly, please, Ron.
LINDSAYYes. He said that this is a phenomenon largely of the college age group. The Pew survey indicates that's not correct. The older millennials, as they're called, the people -- the 26 to 34 age group are also very much among the unaffiliated. So the tendency to stay away from the church is something that persists.
GJELTENAll right. Ronald Lindsay is president of the Center for Inquiry. We're gonna take a short break. Stay with us.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And in this hour, we're talking about our religious identity in this country. There's a new study out by the Pew Research Center that shows that the rise of people who consider themselves unaffiliated to any religion, and in particular a decline in the number of people who identify as Christians. Kim Lawton, I'm going to ask some of these questions to people other than Alan Cooperman because he is such an honorable representative of his data that he's not going to go beyond and speculate very much, is my guess.
GJELTENDo you have any theories here about what's going on, pure theories?
LAWTONWell, I've certainly been covering a lot of religious groups that have been talking about this and also talking about how to respond to it and whether or not they're alarmed, or I don't think anybody's suggesting that organized religion is ready to fall apart completely in this country, but there is a lot of concern about this. And so groups are looking at -- there's been a lot of studying done within institutions about what is behind this and what is it about these institutions that isn't attracting people.
LAWTONAnd there a lot of different theories about that. Some is the amount of politicking that's been going on. Some is, there's been some talk about what is the purpose of these religious institutions. Is it, you know, an organizing place, a community place? Is it a spiritual place, a place where people get some kind of spiritual strength or work on a relationship with God, that kind of thing? And so all of those things are being looked at within the community because of course the trends don't bode well for some of these institutions.
GJELTENAnd Ronald Lindsay, I sort of cut you off before the break, when you were explaining why you think these are promising developments. And basically, if I could summarize you, you welcome that people are thinking more independently. What about what Kim just said, which is that perhaps people not only are thinking independently, but they're sort of living more alone and not associating so much in civic institutions of any kind?
LINDSAYThat may be part of it, and I think that maybe there is a certain trend, I think, to greater autonomy, of the individual, people thinking for themselves. I don't think it necessarily means they're antisocial, but they no longer see the church as a place that provides the community that they like. Our organization provides secular communities for people, and the various branches that we have actually are thriving right now.
LINDSAYSo I think people are still seeking community, still seeking social interaction, but they're no longer seeking it in the context of organized religion.
GJELTENAlan, I'm not going to ask you to speculate, but I am going to ask you which of these theories is most supported by the data that you have.
COOPERMANSure. Well, I think there is data to support the theory that this is not just about religion, that there is, in the United States, a move away from institutions of all variety of sorts and that people are, to some extent, in the famous phrase of Robert Putnam at Harvard, bowling alone, increasingly. One of the things we see when we look at religion is that people who are active in churches, mosques and synagogues are also more likely to be active in every other kind of civic organization that we ask about, that is they're more active in book clubs, they're more active in youth sports, they're more active in community theater, they're more active in 14 different things, literally, that we've asked about.
LINDSAYSo it could be that what's going on is, to some extent, joiners are joiners. The kinds of people who are active in religious organizations are also active in other things. So one question is, and this is really a question, if indeed there is a move away from organized religion in the United States, will the people who've moved away from organized religion remain active but in other areas, or in fact is this part of a general atomization of American society, in which case we may have less active, less civically involved people in general.
GJELTENWell, Don, who is a listener from Washington, D.C., points out that not only are people moving away from religion, they're also more and more likely to classify themselves as independent in terms of their political party affiliation. So that could very well be a related phenomenon.
LINDSAYYes, I think it is in many ways a related phenomenon.
LAWTONAnd this -- oh, sorry.
GJELTENGo ahead, Kim.
LAWTONWell, I was going to say, these trends have really interesting political implications because this group that we're talking about, the nones, N-O-N-E-S, they are more politically liberal, and they are more Democratic. And so the more that group grows, of course you would think, well, that has - you know, that is good for the Democrats and the liberals. However, this group in the past, at least, hasn't voted as actively as some of those people who have religious connections.
LAWTONAnd so I think the challenge for some of these groups that do try to organize or mobilize political activity is how do you mobilize people who aren't necessarily in that ready-made institution, that ready-made organization where you have people who may share your views, where you have church directories that could be used, where you have discussion groups where issues are raised. And so that's going to be an interesting thing to watch.
GJELTENAt this point, let us remind you all that you can call and join our conversation. The number is 1-800-433-8850. If the lines are busy, you can just keep trying, I guess, or send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or take the survey that we are offering at drshow.org.
GJELTENFather Bretzke, one issue or one factor that we haven't talked about yet this morning is the demographic factor, and that is the rapidly changing ethnic composition of the American population, the huge influx of immigrants, bringing to this country their own ideas about religion. What do you see here that might be due to sort of demographic issues?
BRETZKEWell, one thing with, I think, the influx of greater numbers of East Asian immigrants, we have people coming over as Buddhists, and I think that's one reason why Buddhism probably is bigger on the religious scene than it was 50 years ago. I would -- I myself have worked with Korean immigrant churches because I was a missionary in Korea, and a lot of my seminarian students are from Vietnam and places in Latin America, and I know that those immigrant churches still have a very, very high rate of church attendance and church affiliation, and I think for them the churches provide a bit of the comfort zone and group identity that helps them assimilate into American culture.
BRETZKEI would say that, you know, I was - I'm German, basically, and my grandfather went to a German school as a little child, but we are totally assimilated now. And so I think one of the religious affiliations the nones or the moving away from institutional churches might be just the end result of this longstanding process of assimilation into American culture, which I think is marked by a strong individualism and a strong notion that there should be no institutional church in our culture.
GJELTENDoes that ring true to you, Alan?
COOPERMANWell, let me just go back to which non-Christian groups are growing fastest. Really in our data, we see Islam and Hinduism growing mostly as a result of immigration and also higher birth rates, not primarily as a matter of conversation or religious switching, as we call it. Judaism is pretty stable as a share of the population. And overall, non-Christian faiths are rising a little bit, albeit from a very low base.
LAWTONAnother thing I found interesting in the Pew's new numbers was looking at the diversity within some of these Christian groups. And so Evangelicals, who are now the number one, biggest, you know, the largest single Christian -- or group, religious group overall, they are becoming increasingly diverse culturally, racially, within that community, which is something that is new.
COOPERMANAnd so are Catholics, and so are mainline Protestants. So the increasing racial and ethnic diversity is really all across the board.
GJELTENRonald Lindsay, what's your reaction to Father Bretzke's observation that as immigrants assimilate and become more American, they may have less need to identify with, you know, the particular organized religion or church community that they came with?
LINDSAYI would agree with that. I think some people continue with their church tradition because it is a source of solace and community to them. I'd like to actually identify some other factors, though, that haven't been mentioned that I think play into this. Religious belief is a complex phenomenon, and obviously there are different causes why people would, you know, go into religious belief and remain there and also different causes why they leave.
LINDSAYOne thing I found striking in the Pew data was the relationship between income level and level of non-belief, you know, people who are unaffiliated. And it was striking that the percentage of people who are atheist-agnostics was pretty high for those in the bracket over $100,000. Likewise, the percentage of atheist-agnostics increases with the level of college education. So I think those are factors we need to look at.
LINDSAYI think when people feel more economically secure, they may in fact move away from religion. I think this is a trend that some surveys in European countries have identified. Likewise, the more educated the population becomes, again I think there's a move away from organized religion. Again, not necessarily giving up religious beliefs entirely. They may still have some sort of spiritual belief, but the sense that you need to turn towards church for answers I think diminishes as people become more educated and feel confident they can address these issues on their own.
GJELTENAllen Cooperman, another issue is intermarriage, and you mentioned before religious switching, and sometimes when you have intermarriage, you either have either partner sort of maintaining their own religious identity, or you get some switching between them. Is intermarriage an important factor here, do you think?
COOPERMANI think it is, and it does appear to be rising. If we look at the dates at which people were married, and we look at older couples, they are much less likely to be intermarried than couples who've gotten married more recently. Now, the data is a little cloudy in that regard in that there's also some research that suggests that intermarriages are more likely to break up, and we only ask in the survey about people's current, intact marriages. We don't ask them to tell us all about their divorces.
COOPERMANAnd so it's possible that we are somewhat undercounting intermarriages in the past. Nonetheless, I'd say, to me, I'm quite persuaded by the data. If you look at it carefully, it really does appear that religious intermarriage is rising, and a lot of it is between people who are something and someone who's nothing, that is someone who's unaffiliated and someone who maintains a religious belief.
COOPERMANI would also say intermarriage is correlated in our data with lower levels of religious belief and practice. But there's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg question there.
GJELTENIn other words, people who are less religious are more likely to intermarry, rather than vice versa?
COOPERMANWell, the problem is there is a chicken and egg, and I don't know which it is. I don't know whether people become less religious because they intermarry, or they intermarry because they are less religious to begin with. We can't quite figure that out.
GJELTENRight. Now these trends that we're talking about are most apparent among the mainline Christian denominations, mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. You found that among Evangelical Christians, Evangelical Protestants, and among historically black Protestant denominations, somewhat more stable membership.
COOPERMANYes, that's true. And Evangelicals are particularly complicated. So let me try to spell this out for people and help everybody keep it straight. Evangelical Protestants in our data have declined slightly as a share of the population, from about 26 percent to about 25 percent, so about one percentage drop. However, the population as a whole has risen. We have 18 million more adults in the United States than we did seven years ago. As a result, even though as a share they've dropped a little bit, in absolute numbers they probably have increased.
COOPERMANAnd if you look at them not as a share of the whole population, but if you look at just Evangelical Protestants as a share of all Protestants, then they've probably risen as a share of all Protestants.
GJELTENAlan Cooperman is deputy director of Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. We're talking here about the Pew's new study on religious affiliation. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
GJELTENAnd Father Bretzke, you've -- as you mentioned before, your parishes have included some diverse groups, serve diverse communities. What are your thoughts about the fact that worshippers in these somewhat more closed denominations, Evangelical denominations and the historically black denominations, are maintaining membership identity more than the mainline denominations?
BRETZKEWell, I think one aspect, this is a hypothesis, is many of these more closed groups identify with a more tightly knit set of cultural values and religious positions. While we were talking, I just got an email from someone that said I'm being used as a token on "The Diane Rehm Show" because there's a dictatorship of lies on putting forward the idea that there is a normal homosexual.
GJELTENSo some of these hot-button issues, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, domestic partnership, the mainline churches have gotten out, I think, a modus vivendi. We are able to live and work together. But for Evangelical Protestants and in my own Roman Catholic tradition, the extreme right wing, these are calls to the battleground. And I think that this gives -- the sort of culture wars give them a sense of identity where we say we have to stick together. And that's a hypothesis, but it's the best I could come up with.
GJELTENKim Lawton, what's your thought about that hypothesis?
LAWTONWell, certainly, you know, some of the political issues I think have had mixed implications for these groups. On the one hand, maybe they rally identity, as the father was suggesting, but in other cases it can be divisive and turn some people off. I have heard a lot of speculation and a lot of discussion within mainline Protestants, especially in Evangelicals, about again worship styles and what's important in these communities.
LAWTONAnd certainly Evangelicals stress a very personal relationship with God, and they really stress this notion of having individual meaning. And there are some I've spoken with, there are some experts who say that's appealing to people, more so than rituals, maybe, that don't have personal meaning or if the rituals aren't connected to a sense of spiritual meaning. And so sometimes that could be a factor, as well, that if people are looking to go to a religious congregation, they want to go to a place that helps them find meaning.
GJELTENThe issue of the possible connection to culture wars is one that some of our listeners are raising, as well. Michael has an email here, wondering if the poll looked for any correlation between the pro-LBGT national campaign and the decline. He's wondering, Alan, whether national advertising campaigns and, sort of I guess more broadly, kind of media trends and media attention might be shifting public opinion in one way or another.
COOPERMANWell, it's always a question with the media, whether the media is reflecting public opinion or shaping public opinion, and probably some of both are going on. I would say that the theory that the rise of the unaffiliated is connected with politics has been around for a while. The best known proponents of it are two excellent socialists named Mike Hout and Claude Fischer. They are at the University of California at Berkeley, and they wrote a seminal paper about this. It's well known in the field of sociology.
COOPERMANAnd they essentially note several things. One is we can see that the unaffiliated lean Democratic. They are highly liberal. They also, in polling data, ours and others, indicate that they do think of religion as too politics, as too political, and religious organizations as too judgmental and too involved in these kinds of culture war issues. They also note that the rise of the unaffiliated really began back in the 1990s, at a time when the religious right was also on the rise.
GJELTENAlan Cooperman is deputy director of Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. We're talking about the apparent decline of religious identity in America. And when we come back from this break, we're going to have some of the findings from that survey that we have on our website. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm for this discussion of our changing religious identity. My guests include Kim Lawton, who is managing editor and correspondent for Religion & Ethics News Weekly, and Alan Cooperman, who directs religion research at the Pew Research Center. Both of them are here in the studio with me. And we also have Ronald Lindsay, who is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, he's on the line with us from Buffalo, New York, from a studio there, and Father James Bretzke, professor of moral theology in the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. And Father Bretzke told us that he's teaching right now at Marquette University in Wisconsin.
GJELTENAnd during the break, our producer came in here and said that she has gobs of emails from you. So we'll try to get to as many as we can. We also, as I mentioned, put up a poll on our website, and here are some of the preliminary findings. We had -- a lot of people wrote in to take this little poll. Thirty six percent of you, my goodness, 36 percent of you say you identify as an atheist. This is not, apparently, a very church-going audience we have today.
COOPERMANNot nationally representative.
GJELTENNot nationally representative, 30 percent affiliated...
LINDSAYHurray for public radio.
GJELTENThirty percent affiliate with Christianity, and another 19 percent are agnostic, my goodness. Among those who are religious, 46 percent say they do not regularly attend services. Those who say they are no longer religious say it's largely because of the contradiction between religion and science or because religion excludes too many people.
GJELTENSo if you feel these survey -- these data don't reflect your view, please log on and join this poll. We'll post the full results of that poll tomorrow. So I should say that these findings only reflect the views of people that bothered to take the poll. They don't necessarily reflect the views of this audience or the public radio audience more generally.
GJELTENBut let me get to some of these emails and tweets. Megan writes, people work more than ever now. Who has time for church and civics? I'm a single mom working 50 hours a week. And of course the rise of women, single women, single mothers working is something that is verifiable. So that certainly is logical. David tweets, are there anything in the data to suggest the proliferation of information on the Internet with a decrease in church affiliation? I guess he's meaning that, you know, as people become more attached to their computer screens, they are less likely to go to church for inspiration or information or something like that.
GJELTENJordan writes in, Jordan describes himself as a millennial. He says I and many millennials have turned away because organized religion and right-wing politics have become one both in churches and Congress itself. You hear it in speeches. Many churches and groups have been fighting and judging people on the wrong side of the issue for years, from interracial marriage to condemning gay rights, women's rights, et cetera. The younger generation see all of this and cannot stand it, can't stand feeling judged and condemned and can't stand the politicization. So they wash their hands of it.
GJELTENRon Lindsay, you would, I think, back up some of what Jordan is saying here, am I correct?
LINDSAYYeah, exactly. I mean, I think, we were talking a moment ago about the culture wars and how they may solidify support for some of the Evangelical groups. But at the same time, I think, and this, I think, is shown by the striking number of the millennials who are unaffiliated, the millennials also tend to be more tolerant, more accepting of same-sex marriage. They are completely very disappointed, don't care for the judgmental attitude of many Christian organizations.
LINDSAYAnd that is definitely a factor in them turning away from organized religion because they feel it doesn't speak to them. They're trying, the churches are trying to impose doctrines that clearly run against their own perceptions of how people are and how people should be treated with dignity and the idea that somehow same-sex marriage is a sin or an abomination, it simply ring true with them, and they're turning away from the churches because they see the churches are repositories of this judgmental, doctrinal attitude.
GJELTENFather Bretzke, before we go to the phones, I want to go to you because we apparently have all these sort of unreligious people listening to this program today. And I want you to put in a good word for God here.
BRETZKEWell, I believe in a good word for God. I also believe in a good word for organized religion inasmuch as it is faithful to, in the Catholic tradition or the Christian tradition, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I think that ultimately, we're not really about trying to maintain church structure but really trying to reach out to people and meet their needs to heal the wounded. That's one of the big themes of Pope Francis. And I think that that gives him maybe greater credibility with these non-churched or non-religiously affiliated than probably his two immediate predecessors.
GJELTENOkay, let's go to Elaine now, who's on the line from Michigan. Hello, Elaine, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
ELAINEHello, and thank you very, very much for this great program and solid information, which I really appreciate. I just want to say that I'm in my late 70s and have been seriously religious for a great deal of my life, but in middle age, I really started thinking about things religious and did over a decade of Christology, most on my own but some little bit academic. And I cannot say the creed and mean it. I cannot be hypocritical. And so I now call myself a deist because I'm not an atheist, I'm not an agnostic, I'm not a member of organized religion, but there's something beyond us.
ELAINEAnd so that satisfies most people who ask or who are concerned about you because you're not a Christian or whatever. And actually, I have a number of friends who now call themselves deists because they don't want to be part of organized religion, but they're not atheists or agnostic, either.
GJELTENI understand. Thank you, Elaine. Kim Lawton, I want your view on this. Elaine is saying that there's a distinction between an atheist and being just a deist. Can you be just a deist? What does that mean, and, you know, are you religious if you simply believe in a deity that doesn't really have any sort of significance beyond that?
LAWTONWell, I think far be it for me to judge on, you know, the definitions of what constitutes actual religion or spirituality. But I think for a lot of people, there is this sense, as our caller just said.
LAWTONElaine just said, about something bigger, something beyond. Again, as I spoke of before, a search for meaning.
LAWTONAnd then how that gets applied in the individual lives and in the communities around that differs, and I think that very much depends on the congregations, the religious influences around a person. And so, you know, how individuals choose to work that out is a very personal decision, but it's a decision that often is worked out in the context of a community.
GJELTENLet's go down to Wendy, who is on the line from Florida. Hello, Wendy, you've called "The Diane Rehm Show."
GJELTENHi. And have you been following our discussion?
WENDYI have, yes. I am an Episcopal priest in Southeast Florida. And I would agree with many of the comments, especially with regard to popular culture connotation of right-wing politics and organized religion becoming one. And it's actually not the main reason but one of the reasons I became an Episcopal priest at the age of 50. I'm 60 now, so -- or began the process, at least. I think that what I am seeing is that the far right wing has kind of co-opted and hijacked the popular connotation of Christianity. So I've even begun calling myself a Christ-ian, so that it'll engage someone in a conversation about what it means to follow Christ.
WENDYAnd there are a huge number of us that embrace inclusivity of LGBT, that embraces science, that embraces environmental stewardship as Christians, that embrace interfaith dialogue and collaboration. And I think that millennials that I am seeing come to our church, we have an alternative service that I leave called Unplugged, are saying the exact same thing, but they're hearing that they're loved. They're hearing that there is a way forward in this world.
WENDYAnd I think that we have to be willing to take a look at our Midrash, as our Jewish rabbi brothers would say, and different approaches to scripture and not fundamentalism in Christianity, and we're doing that. And I don't -- I think it's the best kept secret in Christianity. So I just want to stand up for the Episcopal church. We've been -- I don't know. I won't go on, but I just had to call.
GJELTENYeah, well, Wendy, I think that on the one hand, you'd said that you sort of feel somewhat alienated from some -- to some extent from organized religion, and yet you have eloquently laid out that for people with your values, there still are homes within the Christian tradition in America.
WENDYYes, and I am a part of mainline Christianity. I am an Episcopal priest, and I in a regular, St. Joseph's Episcopal Church in Boynton Beach, Florida. And we are growing. This church, this alternative service that we call an emergent church, started in 2005 with an average attendance of, like, 20, and then it went up to 70. Now we've got an average attendance of 130 people that are coming, and a good number of them are in their 20s and 30s, and we are attracting huge recovery community in this area.
WENDYAnd I think that, you know, I think the time has come to start talking about what unites us instead of what divides us. And I don't blame people for running the other way when they walk into church and hear that you're born a sinner, and that's all they hear.
GJELTENOkay, thank you very much for your thoughts, Wendy. Let's go now to Laurie, who's on the phone. And Laurie, I think you're calling us from Texas. Is that right?
LAURIEAnd I appreciate this show. I think one of the reasons why you have so many callers calling in is because those of us who might identify as religious but are not with any set religious affiliation feel just an overwhelming need to say, hey, and I'm a good person. Because I think for me, that's been a difficult thing about not belonging to a formal church. I had a former boss, wonderful person, who was religious, who belonged to a church, and when she learned that I did not said, well, you don't believe in anything and sort of a feeling of that must make me a bad person.
LAURIESo I think that might be one reason why so many people are calling in, because it feels like, okay, we're being validated by this research. And I appreciate it, love the "Bowling Alone" book. And really the comment I was going to make, and I'd like to hear the speakers comment a bit further on it, is what effect not being affiliated with a church, not belonging to a church, might have on civic involvement. And also, there are so many ways to get involved civically, in civic organizations that need our support that might not be religiously affiliated.
LAURIEPTA, Crime Watch, that kind of thing. So I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks so much.
GJELTENWell, Alan Cooperman, we've been discussing the connection between civic involvement and religious attendance, but something else that Laurie mentioned that you might want to comment on, and that is that she feels that -- she feels welcoming of this data, which find that there are many, many people who are looking for sort of their own way here.
COOPERMANAbsolutely. One of the things I think is interesting, one reason why church leaders may not see this to the same extent, is that there are still very many Americans who are religious, still quite a few people who say they go to religious services every week and so on. The group that is unaffiliated and that is rising is coming largely, that rise, out of the people who weren't going to religious services on a regular basis anyway, and an increasing share of those people who used to maintain a nominal kind of affiliation, maybe they said they were Presbyterian, even though they grew up in a Presbyterian church but hadn't gone in 30 years, a lot of them now are dropping any label.
COOPERMANAnd this gets to what I think Wendy was talking about, which I think of as the declining social desirability of attachment to religion and maybe in some cases even the rising social undesirability of attachment to religion. This is kind of where these comments have been - what they've been triggering for me.
GJELTENAlan Cooperman, he's director of religion research at the Pew Research Center. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go now to Billy. Billy is on the line from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hello, Billy, you have reached "The Diane Rehm Show."
BILLYHi, thank you. I just wanted to call. It sounds like I've been listening to some of the other callers, I have a similar statement but not quite the same. I'm very religious, but I think this is wonderful. I think that it's wonderful that people are questioning. I think that science needs to purify religion and that -- but I believe that all that, the chaos that's happening, is a good thing and that actually what's going to happen is that, you know, human beings have always, when science cannot answer mysteries, and we've always had this yearning for this mystery, this essence of ourselves.
BILLYAnd, you know, I think we're going to continue to have that, and that's why people, even when they leave religion, are still affiliated in some ways to a spiritual life. And so I don't really see this as bad. I see this as a wonderful thing. I think it's going to purify the doctrines and dogmas that are manmade and bring us together in unity and love, which is really the essence of all the religions.
GJELTENThank you very much. Ronald Lindsay, we have here a caller who describes himself as very religious and yet welcomes sort of this increasing questioning of the dogma, I would say. And I'm certain that you would -- you might even take that a step further and would applaud sort of secularism in general. Is that right?
LINDSAYYes, secularism in general, and I want to emphasize secularism is not the same thing as atheism. I'm an atheist myself, but I'm mostly concerned, and one reason I welcome the information that came from the Pew Report, is it indicates, as this gentleman just confirmed, that a number of Americans, increasing number of Americans, are willing to think on their own, to leave the doctrines and dogmas of established religion and come to their own understanding of the relationship with God, if there is a God. Some people come to the conclusion there isn't.
LINDSAYBut even those who continue to believe in God, they're not going to just accept blindly the authority of, you know, this church or that church. They're going to come to their own understanding spiritually, and that's a good thing because I think that opens it up. We've been talking about the political influence of some of the more conservative churches. That's something that we as an organization don't like. We'd rather see Americans come together and reason together without any -- with this doctrine, you know, directing the discussion but simply exchanging ideas about how to make this a better society for everyone.
GJELTENAnd Father Bretzke, we're nearing the end of the program, and some things that you said earlier intrigued me, and that is certain circumstances in people's lives, whether it's when they get older and sort of have responsibility for their children, or maybe even later on in life, certain circumstances tend to bring them back toward religion. Can you elaborate on that?
BRETZKEWell, yes, I think at the end of the day, most of us will figure out that we have a dimension that takes us beyond ourselves. There's a transcendental pull in our lives, and serious, life-changing circumstances, illness, death, breakdown of relationships, I think that helps us see that we can't resolve all of our needs and issues on our own, and this is what brings us then, I think, back to places that offer the possibility of some deeper meaning or some deeper answers, and that's where I think religion still has a very valid place to play in society.
GJELTENAnd that'll have to be our closing thought. Father James Bretzke is professor of moral theology at Boston College. Our others guests include Kim Lawton from the Religion & Ethics News Weekly, Ronald Lindsay from the Center for Inquiry, and Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at Pew. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for listening.
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