Report: religion becoming more diverse in America

Growing up in a two-faith household, Margaret Foland, whose mother is a devout Catholic and father is a Southern Baptist, said the only fights she remembers growing up were over religion.

The junior theatre major was raised in the Catholic Church, a faith she embraces to this day, with the exception of one little bump in the road.

“My faith wavered and when I got into high school,” she said. “So I have come full circle from doubting my own faith to defending it wholeheartedly.”

Foland’s experience is an example of the changing landscape of religion in America, which a Pew Research Institute Survey says is becoming increasingly more fluid and diverse.

The report, released earlier this year, included 35,000 respondents nationwide and found the current American religious marketplace to be characterized by constant movement with every major religious group simultaneously gaining and losing large numbers of adherents.

The survey showed that 37 percent of married Americans have a spouse of another faith, and 28 percent of respondents left the religion in which they were raised for another, or none at all. And when considering those who left one form of Protestant-based faith for another, the number of affiliation changes rose to 44 percent.

These results came as no surprise to Tim Carson, senior minister of University Christian Church.

Carson, a Brite Divinity School graduate, has been a pastor for 25 years and has witnessed first hand the increasing fluidity in American religious practice.

“We are a Disciples of Christ congregation,” he said. “But when I take a poll of how many people grew up Disciples, it’s maybe 25 percent.”

Carson said he believes many people these days pick congregations based on location more often than the tradition in which the congregation is rooted.

“We have a lot of young people here that are just looking for the place they can find God,” he said. “And this seems to be the place where they feel that, regardless of where they came from or how they got here.”

Carson said he believes the shift will continue, but America will remain a largely religious society.

“The heart hungers of the soul will always be there, but the way they are going to be met in the future will be, I think, in some radically diverse ways,” he said.

The reality, Carson said, is the U.S. is a religious nation, with only four percent of Americans identifying themselves as atheist or agnostic, but not an exclusively Christian nation.

“We are a democracy that allows religious freedom,” he said. “Within that democracy are practicing Christians… and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different.”

Carson said a greater concern of many religious leaders is that the percentage of persons who are unaffiliated are actually larger than what is in the report, because people have a tendency to be kind to themselves in surveys.

The survey names the unaffiliated group as having the largest gain with 16 percent of Americans not currently identifying with any particular faith, while only 8 percent say they were not affiliated as children.

“What we experience in actual living churches is that a much larger percentage of the population does not participate,” he said.

Another growing trend Carson said is problematic is piecing together traditions or beliefs from different faiths into a personalized belief system.

“It’s a bit like snatching body parts and putting them all together into a new body,” he said. “Sometimes they aren’t consistent or complimentary and when people do that in an unthoughtful manner they end up with peculiar combinations.”

The blending of religious practices is something Jack Hill, associate professor of religion, said is prevalent in the writings and conversations he has with his students.

Hill said while many of his students do identify with a particular faith, closer inspection sometimes reveals a more individualistic practice.

“I will have some students that fill out the questionnaire at the beginning of the semester and indicate that they are Baptist, but once you get to know them you learn that they are doing some yoga meditation during the week,” he said. “So it’s a little bit of a syncretistic, personal spirituality.”

Rather than a fad or a trend, Hill suspects this practice could signal a new axial age in religion.

“I think a potential change is coming in the next generation or two or three in terms of how people identify religiously,” he said. “People are not necessarily going to be identifying so much institutionally or even with a particular faith, but they are going to have a little more complex experience of spirituality.”

By the Numbers4 percent of Americans say they are atheist or agnostic.
10 percent of Americans say they are former Catholics.
25 percent of Americans age 18 to 29 say they are not affiliated with any particular religion.
37 percent of married Americans have a spouse of a different faith.
44 percent of Americans have left the faith in which they were raised for another or none at all.
51 percent of Americans are affiliated with a Protestant-based faith.
Source: The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life