On Tuesday, Pew Research released a new study finding a radical increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans. That increase correlated strongly with the decrease in the number of Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelical Protestants over the past seven years.
Overall, the number of unaffiliated Americans rose from 16.1 percent of the population in 2007 to 22.8 percent of the population in 2014. That represents an increase of 19 million Americans. Pew points out that the shift from religion crosses “all regions of the country and many demographic groups.” Young people are becoming more and more irreligious. The average age of mainline Protestants is now 52, 49 for Catholics, but 36 for religiously unaffiliated Americans. And Americans are switching religions like never before. Pew notes:
If all Protestants were treated as a single religious group, then fully 34% of American adults currently have a religious identity different from the one in which they were raised. … Nearly one-in-five U.S. adults (18%) were raised in a religious faith and now identify with no religion.
A full 39 percent of all marriages in the United States since 2010 were religious intermarriage. Meanwhile, the number of self-identified Christians dropped from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent as of last year.
There has been religious growth in certain areas: Jewish self-identification has risen from 1.7 percent in 2007 to 1.9 percent in 2014; Muslim self-identification more than doubled, from 0.4 percent to 0.9 percent.
So why the massive drop in religious affiliation? The New York Times would have Americans believe that religion has stumbled because of its involvement in politics:
The report does not offer an explanation for the decline of the Christian population, but the low levels of Christian affiliation among the young, well educated and affluent are consistent with prevailing theories for the rise of the unaffiliated, like the politicization of religion by American conservatives.
This is precisely backwards. American conservatives did not politicize religion. American leftists did. That’s why The New York Times sees fit to run shocked headlines every time Pope Francis reiterates that the Catholic Church remains against same-sex marriage, as has been its position since the time of Jesus. The Church didn’t change, but the left has politicized issues, like marriage and same-sex marriage, upon which there was once unanimity, and pretended that only religious bigotry could justify any position different than their own. Religious Americans didn’t start speaking out about abortion because American conservatives hijacked religion. They started speaking out about abortion because American leftists hijacked politics and used those politics to assault religion.
In truth, the decline of American religious practice can be traced not to the intransigence of America’s religious institutions, but to their desperate attempts to “reach out” to young people by forsaking key values. Values alienate. Behavioral requirements alienate. Talk about sin alienates. Talk about heaven and hell alienates. And so religious institutions decided not to focus on such uncomfortable but eternal truths in order to fill pews. Major religious institutions across the United States decided that it would be more effective to draw constituents with honey rather than vinegar – forgetting, of course, that religion isn’t either. Religion is fine wine: it may taste bitter when it first hits the tongue, but it is rich, sweet, and beautiful when you know what you’re drinking. Religion without standards is kumbaya happy talk, requiring neither God nor church.
Churches, in an effort to avoid losing government-guaranteed tax-exempt status, stopped speaking out about secular assaults on religious freedom. They stopped speaking against candidates who embraced the murder of the unborn or the corruption of the marital institution via governmental embrace of “alternative family structures.” Instead, they suggested that church was for barbecues, get-togethers, date nights, and the occasional Psalm-reading session.
Americans quickly realized that the churches had shifted focus from providing eternal truths to providing transient community-building exercises. And they realized that it’s a lot more fun to go to the beach on a Sunday morning than to sit on uncomfortable wooden benches. They realized the entire family would prefer attending a Dodger game than sitting through a three-hour synagogue service. When religious leaders decided to require less, rather than more, of their constituents, Americans decided religion was worthless. Religion is about upholding God’s standards. Abandoning those standards means abandoning God. Religion cannot survive as a cultural totem rather than as an embodiment of the word of the Living God.
Which is why Islam is growing in the United States, as well as around the world. Islam requires. It may require behavior many people believe to be wrong, but it requires behavior nonetheless. People are attracted to behavioral requirements, as secularists well know; that’s why secularists require religious Americans to serve same-sex weddings, require obeisance to ascientific nonsense about the malleability of biological gender, and celebrate abortion like a sacrament. Even atheists and agnostics have a god that requires something of them. Typically, that god is an inflated sense of self-worth spawning both a self-generated morality and an unearned sense of moral superiority.
Religion’s ailments spring from religion itself, just as they always have. Religious affiliation rises and falls regularly in the United States; according to Gallup, the number of Americans identifying as “none” or “no answer” to questions about religious affiliation ranged from 2 percent in 1951 to 11 percent in 1992, back down to 8 percent in 1998, before spiking from 11 percent in 2004 to 20 percent in 2014. That last jump is deeply troubling for religious Americans, as well it should be. It should also encourage them not to abandon the faith for which their ancestors stood, and in many cases died, without at least fighting for the principles of their faith rather than feel-good trappings that fill pews for the free food but empty churches over the course of generations.
Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.