By Liz Hay
Elm Staff Writer
A report from the Associated Press released last week stated that the fastest growing religion in the United States is “none.” There are now about 56 million people who identify as religiously unaffiliated, more than the current count of mainline Protestants.
It should be noted that the AP report is combining atheists and people who simply say they do not subscribe to a particular religion in the “no religion” group. In fact, about a third of those identified as non-religious still say they believe in God.
According to the Pew Research Center, the category of “religious nones” is mostly comprised of those ages 18-29, which suggests that this is only the beginning of the trend. Looking at recent trends in data, it is likely that the coming years will only see further growth in the number of people choosing to disassociate from organized religion.
The AP cites disillusionment with particular religious institutions as the cause behind this shift. People are finding issues with religion on the basis of scientific discrepancies, personal convictions, and unfulfilling experiences in relation to specific churches. At the core, people are tired of organized religion telling them exactly what to do about every aspect of their lives.
These issues seem to be focused on the failings of particular institutions rather than on the concept of religion as a whole. The people interviewed for the AP article were linked to the growing trend of spiritual, but non-religious, groups. Many are still attached to classic religious values like charity and kindness, but feel that the bureaucracy that has developed around those core aspects is what dissuades them from identifying with a religion.
One factor that may be contributing to this disillusionment has to be the recently exposed scandals of the Catholic Church. It’s no secret that the response of the Catholic Church to numerous allegations of sexual assault has been found lacking by many. Earlier this year, Pope Francis made headlines when he called the accusers of a Chilean priest “slanderers,” and the church as a whole has been found complicit in covering up several cases over the years.
Of course, corruption in the Catholic Church is not the only cause of the growing number of religiously unaffiliated people. Fundamentalist positions on evolution, vaccinations, and other issues in science play their part in driving people away from religion. In every organization there are aspects to disagree with, and religious institutions are not exceptions.
The idea that shifting religious ties are a response to negative aspects of religion makes it seem like the growing number of “religious nones,” as Pew refers to them, is inherently a good thing. However, the benefits of religion can’t be ignored, and it’s a shame that so many people are turned off by elements not at the core of religious faith.
Fairness, empathy, kindness — these attributes and others suffer when perceived as fluid and subjective. Traditionally, religion has been the authority that set standards of morality and ensured that society had a metric by which to judge actions. It is hard to lean on a secular understanding of morality to fill in for traditional religious legitimacy, because secular thought is by nature more subjective.
When there are no longer set definitions, there is definitely more freedom, but that freedom comes at the cost of individual determination. Every person has to define for themselves what is right and wrong, and we might not like what other people come up with. Without an objective standard, though, who’s to say which definitions are correct?