One in five adults does not belong to an organized religion. Nearly a third of Americans age 18-29 don’t have a spiritual home.
“I think it goes without saying these are pretty significant changes in the American religious landscape,” said Greg Smith, a lead researcher on the Pew study.
Needless to say, this study hits home for religious leaders. So we asked a number of them why they thought so many Americans were walking away from organized religion. Their intriguing responses are below. We’ll keep adding perspectives as they come in, so return here for updates, and please feel free to suggest additional sources.
Eboo Patel author of “Sacred Ground,” and founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core
There’s no doubt that a lot of young people view religion as somewhere between irrelevant and intolerant. That’s due to the combination of several factors: the rise of high profile religious violence in the world, the emergence of a strand of atheism that’s openly hostile to faith, and the increased questioning of all traditions and institutions. I think this is something religious communities can do something about. We’ve got to present faith as inspiring, talk about the role it’s played everywhere from the civil rights movement to the struggle in South Africa. There are people out there saying faith is an injection of poison or a bomb of destruction. We have to emphasize that it’s the beating heart of significant social movements and a bridge of cooperation.
Andrew Cooper, features editor at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review
I think the most significant factor in this is the acceleration of the American ethos of individualism. As in other spheres of life, when it comes to religion, there are benefits and drawbacks to this tendency. The valuing of critical intelligence, the rejection of sectarian dogma, openness to diverse viewpoints, the ability to adapt religious practices to modern life, the affirmation of life’s spiritual dimension—these are all positive things that are related to individualism. But if unchecked, the drawbacks of individualism can be serious: social isolation, narcissism in the name of spirituality, the weakening of the bonds to community and tradition that have always provided a context for spiritual experience, the collapse of coherent social life, the promotion of the good of the individual as the primary motivating value and reality. These tendencies don’t just weaken organized religion; they undermine our capacity live meaningful lives. For all their disagreements, all religions seem to recognize that we don’t just stand apart from others; we also stand as a part of others.