Much has and will be made of a report issued recently by the Pew Forum, finding a significant increase in the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Commentators have seized on one fact–less than half of Americans now identify themselves as Protestant, a testimony, above all, to the continuing collapse of mainline Protestantism, but perhaps also a harbinger of a decline in Evangelicalism, which has also lost adherents over the past five years.
I’ll note a few things now, and have more later, after I’ve had time for further reflection.
First, the vast majority of the unaffiliated do not describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, but simply as not affiliated. Eighty-eight percent of the non-affiliated say they aren’t looking for a religion. Many say they believe in God, but are cynical about organized religion. I wonder what the basis of their cynicism is. Do they actually have experience of a church or religious community that justifies their cynicism, or is this just the easy, pseudo-worldly wise stance of the young?
Second, the young indeed comprise a substantial proportion of this unaffiliated group. That gives me some hope. Perhaps they’re still open to the kinds of experiences (birth and death chief among them) that can bring us to our knees in prayer and send us to church or back to church. Of course, the problem here is that while all of us will face death, an increasingly diminishing proportion of us will face birth, so to speak.
Third, it’s pretty clear that part of the problem is the failure of catechesis:
Michael S. Horton, professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California, said Christians appear to be creating future “nones” by failing to adequately pass the faith on to successive generations.
“We are about a generation away from a worshiping community that is rather small in terms of those who know what they believe, why they believe, and practice their faith with some real conviction,” he said.
As I said, more later, after more reflection.