One of my talks is “Future Topics and Trends in Science and Religion With an Eye to American Intellectual History," and here’s some of the material I’m working on, which doesn’t directly address science and faith, but which does address what kind of faith—or perhaps better, spirituality—that increasingly describes Americans.
It would be hard to resist the conclusion that future American religious life will become more splintered and that the Christian church will have a decreasing influence. Almost all major polls of the past five to ten years demonstrate that, as a nation, we are less Christian and affiliated to any religion. For example, the 2014 Pew Research Center report on the Religious Landscape found that 36% of Younger Millennials (1990-1996) and 34% of Older Millennials (1981-89) were unaffiliated (or "nones"), while only 11% of the Silent Generation (1928-1945) could be placed in that category. In between these two fell Generation X (1965-80) at 23% and Baby Boomers (1946-64) at 17%.
Put simply, in just over sixty years, the percentage of “nones” had more than tripled. The report continues to note that partly this is a generational reality.
While some Millennials are leaving their childhood religion to become unaffiliated, most Millennials who were raised without a religious affiliation are remaining religious “nones” in adulthood. Two-thirds of Millennials who were raised unaffiliated are still unaffiliated (67%), a higher retention rate than most other major religious groups – and much higher than for older generations of “nones.” (Pew Research Center)
I have heard it presented that “Oh, they’ll come back to church when they get older, get married, and have kids,” which have been correlations for religious affiliation in the past. Pew doesn’t give religious communities much comfort for the future:
It is possible that more Millennials who were raised unaffiliated will begin to identify with a religion as they get older, get married and have children, but previous Pew Research Center studies suggest that generational cohorts typically do not become more religiously affiliated as they get older. And the new survey finds that most generational cohorts actually are becoming less religiously affiliated as they age. (Pew Research Center)
And so the future seems largely unaffiliated. But, here I need emphasize that "unaffiliated" doesn’t mean uninterested in God, Ultimate Reality, or spirituality.
The "nones" check “none of the above” when asked “What religion do you affiliate with?”
Too often, however, the “nones” are thrown in with the atheists and agnostics. This is a category error if we mean that they are all against belief in God or even participation in worship services. They do belong in the same category if the topic is the answer to “Do you affiliate with a particular religion?”
And this will mean a new future with more pluralized tinkering with spirituality. As Zoe, age twenty, told me in an interview about her views on religion and science:
“I don’t ever think of myself as a religious person, however I prefer taking pieces of some different religions.” (Zoe, age 20)
And that means some “nones” believe in God and still worship in Christian congregations. And even those who don’t believe in God, find a bigger Something at the core of existence. As Devan, one of the older persons I interviewed, put it,
“I don’t believe in God, but there is spiritual component to life.” (Devan, age 33)
I’ll leave it observations for now, but I wonder if you have any comments on what this means for our country.