Empty Pews: Everyone Is Misreading the New Numbers of Religiously ‘Unaffiliated’

Yes, there are more people who don't belong to any particular church, and yet many still believe in God

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Andrew Medichini / AP

Bishops attend a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI marking the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Square, Oct. 11, 2012.

Earlier this week, while men in miters hunkered down in Rome for the start of a bishops synod on how to make the Roman Catholic Church more relevant to the 21st Century—which coincides with the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, the council charged with making the Church more relevant in the 20th Century—the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington, D.C., released a survey indicating just how futile their task might be. It reports that one-fifth of the U.S. public, and a third of adults under 30, aren’t affiliated with any religion today—a 15% increase in just the past five years. While religious leaders bemoaned the data and, like the Vatican synod, vowed to defy it, groups like the New Jersey-based American Atheists cheered the Pew study as evidence that the “number of godless continues to rise” and that the “stranglehold of religion is fading away.”

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But both responses—the alarmed resistance from many corners of organized religion and the smug celebration among many atheists—are a misreading of the Pew findings. The survey reveals neither a “tsunami of secularism,” which Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., spokesman for the bishops synod, fears is bearing down on organized religion, nor a triumphant upsurge of “godless” atheists who revere Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Despite the rise in the religiously unaffiliated, for example, Pew also found that more than two-thirds of those people believe in God. What’s out there instead is a nation of people who, like most people in most nations in the developed West, acknowledge faith as a positive human urge but are increasingly, and not too surprisingly, turned off by the often archaic institutions that claim to represent faith.

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According to Pew, the spiritually engaged but religiously unaffiliated do think that “churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.” But “overwhelmingly,” it adds, “they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

The Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal is a depressing example of that hierarchical preoccupation with power. Cardinal Wuerl, who cracked down on pedophile priests when so many bishops were shielding them, is an encouraging exception. But even he betrayed a certain denial about his church’s real problems in his opening address to this week’s synod, when he urged Catholics to “overcome the syndrome of embarrassment” about faith—for which he blamed the pressures of secularism and not, incredibly, the arrogance of clericalism. I’m a Catholic, and I don’t know any Catholics, practicing or lapsed, who are ashamed of a faith that showcases values like compassion and redemption. It’s not the faith that’s the source of embarrassment; more likely it’s the actions of the church.

That’s one message the Pew survey might be telling us. It also has something to say to those atheists who do brand faith and belief in God as an embarrassing syndrome. On the one hand, the survey—which finds that almost 6% of the U.S. public is now atheist or agnostic—should be an encouraging sign that non-belief is no longer taboo in American society. But on the other hand, there are more than a few atheists who will interpret the survey as Darwinian proof that faith is some Paleolithic impulse that “fades away” as humans evolve.

That’s not only bigoted—suggesting that my knuckles drag because I believe in God is as intolerant as asserting that someone is soulless because they don’t—it simply doesn’t square with the Pew results. The survey makes it clear that even people who don’t frequent churches, synagogues, mosques or temples still ponder the transcendent—the study finds that 21% of them even pray regularly—and don’t find it a betrayal of reason.

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It would be just as foolish for the leaders of organized religions—including Protestant denominations, which according to Pew no longer represent the majority of Americans—to see the Pew survey as a reason to circle the theological wagons and double down on narrow doctrine. That will likely lead to an even further erosion of religious affiliation and of its positive social benefits—like “strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.” Jesus said truth often comes “out of the mouth of babes.” It also comes at us from the mouths of the religiously unaffiliated.