“Unaffiliated”: The Advent of Religious Decline in America

(originally published 2/8/16)

“I’ve never gone to church.”

Michael Kemerer is a 19-year-old college student at Community College of Allegheny County who grew up with religious parents. But having never attended weekly mass as a child, it’s something he’s grown distant from.

“I have nothing against religion, but I’m just not active,” he said.

Kemerer’s story is anything but unique, as a growing number of millennials do not identify with a religion.

According a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, only 63% of American adults say they are “absolutely certain” God exists. The research shows similar declines in other areas of religious affiliation among adults.

An important group in the religious landscape is what is being called the “nones” or people who don’t identify with a particular religion. Almost a quarter of American adults, such as Kemerer, belong to this group. It’s a trend that experts are watching closely and trying to explain.

Elaine Parsons, a historian and professor of religious historical studies at Duquesne University, explains that in the past, churches used to serve a role that is no longer necessary.

“Part of what happened for a long time was that churches served as a system of social organizations,” Parsons said. “There are different ways that we structure ourselves formally, particularly in the United States, and churches were the biggest of those clubs and voluntary organizations.”

Whereas churches used to be a primary mode of socialization and communication, new mediums like the Internet have replaced the non-spiritual benefits of attending church, according to Parsons.

This shift has certainly been felt by those within the religious community, including the Rev. William Christy, Assistant Director of the Spiritan Campus Ministry at Duquesne University.

Having spent over twenty years on mission trips outside of the country, Christy has seen the religious decline in America fall rapidly. He has watched the increase of the “nones” and their detachment from their religious tradition.

“They’ll say ‘I grew up such-and-such, but I don’t practice now.’ They see themselves culturally in that group, but not as active participants,” Christy said.

He notices this spiritual disconnect emerging from middle-class suburbia, a place he believes suffers from a lack of community.

“Community and religion are tied very much so,” he said. “That’s why you see such strong community in inter-city and rural areas, because community is necessary for life.”

While priests like Christy are fighting to rekindle that sense of community, Elaine Parsons believes that this dip in spiritual affinity is just part of a historical pattern that has repeated itself time and again throughout history.

“There have been times when churchgoing was very normative, and there have been times where there has been very high rates of disinterest,” she said. “It’s almost like a natural flow. I believe that in 20 years, we’ll have another comeback of religion in the United States.”

But for millennial Michael Kemerer, it’ll take more than an uptrend to go to church.

“Evidence,” Kemerer said, when asked what it’d take to make him believe. “Just facts.”

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