We’re losing the bridge of ambivalent Americans between strident secularists and strong Christians.
The United States’ mushy Christian middle is disappearing faster than fried chicken at a church fellowship as Americans coalesce around the two poles, according to the latest data from Pew Research Center. The nones are becoming more secular, and those who still maintain a vibrant Christian identity are holding fast to the values of the faith.
The secularization of the nones
Between 2007 and 2014, the number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the USA has increased from 16% to 23%. At the same time, these individuals have become increasingly secular. In 2007, 70% of the nones believed in God — a number that dropped to 61% in 2014. Fewer nones attend church once a month, pray regularly, or find religion to be very important.
Previously, religiously unaffiliated adults have had at least some interest in religion. Now the nones appreciate religion less, causing a wider chasm between the decreasing Protestant population in the USA and the ever-growing unaffiliated population.
In the past, those of nominal faith were a bridge between the Christian community and the irreligious community. As the cultural cost of being a Christian increases, people who were once Christians in name only likely have started to identify as nones, disintegrating the “ideological bridge” between unbelievers and believers.
The steadfastness of the faithful
Perhaps just as fascinating as the secularization of the nones is the steadfastness of faithful Christians, who hold a variety of views that are becoming increasingly unpopular in American culture.
While fewer Americans pray daily or attend church services weekly or more, those who are religiously affiliated are actually showing more devotion to their faith. The percentage of Christians who say they pray daily has climbed from 66% to 68%. Since 2007, more Christians say they are reading their Bible weekly, participating in a small group, and sharing their faith.
Among all Americans, weekly or more church attendance dropped from 40% in 2007 to 36% in 2014. By contrast, Christians who claim at least weekly attendance remained relatively flat, with a one-point drop from 48% to 47%. The picture looks remarkablly similar — and stable — throughout Christianity and other faiths.
Instead of decreasing their devotion in a time of increased secularism, the deeply religious are more committed than ever. While there was a drop in the percentage of religiously affiliated who say religion is “somewhat” important in their life (27% to 25%), those who say religion is “very important” jumped two points from 64% to 66%. Among Christians specifically, it climbed from 66% to 68%.
Living peaceably amidst differences
As the culture becomes more secular and the devout remain steady, how will we see each other?
Unfortunately, many intolerant secularists and defiant believers see perpetual conflict as the only way forward. As this polarization of the American religious environment becomes more evident and entrenched, both sides should reject the dichotomy presented by those who make names for themselves by constantly pushing a combative agenda.
As much as some might wish that faith were dying away, it’s not. It will continue to be the primary influence in many Americans’ lives and one of the guiding influences for our society. The growth of secularism in this country should not include forcing religious individuals to exercise their faith exclusively in places of worship.
The real and obvious solution would be to rediscover true tolerance, where ideas — religious and secular — are welcomed for debate and discussion in the public square. With this in mind, we can learn to respect those who differ from us while affirming a free society for the religious and the non-religious.
Tolerance won’t stop the coming polarization, but it might help us to live in the same nation.