Although it has been over one-hundred years since the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche first declared “God is dead,” America’s modern day religious landscape continues to echo the statement with a vengeance. Since the turn of the century, pollsters across the country have reported that the American public is undergoing a major cultural shift away from organized religion. This transition is partially a commentary on generational stratification, with young adults being three times as likely as seniors to identify as religiously unaffiliated (38 percent vs 12 percent.) However, age is not the only factor at play here. The cultural undercurrent of religious de-emphasis is principally derived from fundamental ideological differences between traditionalist religious believers and the unaffiliated, and how both groups interact in society.
“Religious disaffiliation” is a recently coined term commonly used to describe people who are not connected to any religious denomination. It encompasses those who consider themselves to be spiritual, agnostic, atheist etc. It has become such a prominent state of being that it has led many to describe the current time period as “the age of the unaffiliated.” Although it is difficult to point to exact reasons why Americans are growing dissatisfied with religion (at exponentially increasing rates), there are a few strong conjectures presently being put forth.
To start, disaffiliation with religion is occurring early on in the lives of young people. Pew Research Center reports that most Americans (62%) who choose to leave the religion they were raised in do so before the age of 18. Therefore, they spend a significantly greater portion of their lives with a conceptualization of themselves as a nonreligious person, and their subsequent conversations, arguments, and defining characteristics will reflect those beliefs as they interact with others. As a result, people are forced to become more comfortable with the idea of their friends, coworkers, and family members being non-religious in nature. This familiarization also helps to contribute to a reduction in any stigma associated with being religiously unaffiliated, and thus helps the movement spread.
The causes of the early disassociation are varied, but for the most part, Pew Research Center reports that they are a result of:
1.) A growing lack of belief in religious teachings
2.) Growing up in a non-religious household
3.) the experience of negative religious teachings regarding the rights and treatment of LBGTQ individuals.
Interestingly, many Americans who report that they do not believe in religious teachings still state that they retain a believe in a higher power or God figure. The disconnect between actually translating those spiritual beliefs into organized religion may stem from the fact that approximately 66% of religiously unaffiliated Americans agree that “religion causes more problems in society than it solves.” For these people, religion does not play the formative moral role that it has played in the past, nor does having a personal relationship with their higher power of choice necessitate being associated with formal religious institutions. Therefore, although there is a definitive disdain for traditional religious teachings among the unffiliated, they are probably more spiritual than the numbers would have us believe. A more personalized approach to religion appears to be on the rise.
The increasing number of people growing up in a non-religious households (32%) is likely a marker of generational differences between modern day and decades past. As a result of the current societal movement towards disaffiliation, there are obviously going to be more people raising their children in a way that spurns religion, simply as a result of humanity’s natural tendency to pass on our belief systems to our young.
Additionally, people who grow up in religiously mixed households (households where each parent has a different religious denomination or affiliation) are much more likely to grow up and become religiously unaffiliated themselves, as opposed to their counterparts whose parents shared the same faith (31% vs 22%). Therefore, this mass religious exodus may also speak to a rise in multiculturalism as the world grows increasingly interconnected in the age of globalization.
Finally, as society continues on its trajectory of intolerance towards those who shame LBGTQ individuals, it follows that any institution that publicly assaults the rights of that community would see a heavily reduced level of support.
In short, religion has been de-emphasized in the modern era as a result of changing social climates, where it has become increasingly well-tolerated to define yourself on terms other than your religious denomination. People are moving away from institutional guidelines on what morality should be understood as, and exactly what your relationship with God or a higher power should be. This is a movement towards a more liberal version of religion, where people are increasingly turning inward to answer life’s most existential questions, particularly when they find the platforms of many religious institutions to be irreconcilable with their own, more pressing definitions of themselves.