by Emma Green, The Atlantic Monthly, 5/12/15.
…Every American has a religion story, which is why it’s a little strange to think of America as an increasingly secular nation. That would be one way to read the Pew Research Center’s new Religious Landscape Study, a massive survey of more than 35,000 American adults. Over the last seven years, it found, the share of Americans who aren’t part of any religion has grown significantly, rising from 16 to nearly 23 percent of the population. A small portion of this group are atheists and agnostics—3 and 4 percent, respectively. More commonly, though, they are detached from organized religion altogether. When asked what religion they identify with, they answer simply: “Nothing in particular.” All in all, roughly one in ten Americans say religion is “not at all important” to them.
But the survey actually reveals something more complex than a slow and steady march toward secularization. Those who didn’t identify with any particular religion were asked a follow-up question: “How important is religion in your life?” The answers reveal that this group might be churchless, but it’s not wholly faithless: 44 percent said religion is “very” or “somewhat” important to them, while 56 percent said religion isn’t important to them, according to Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of research. This is a slight drop compared to findings from a similar survey taken in 2007: That year, 48 percent of the “nones” said religion was important to them, while 52 percent said it wasn’t.Even taking this decline into account, there’s a pretty significant group of Americans who don’t identify with a particular denomination or congregation, but who still care about religion to some degree. That’s not the pattern of a Godless nation; it’s the pattern of people finding God on their own terms.
And that holds true even among many of those who do identify with a particular faith. The survey gives at least a partial look at what the researchers call “religious switching”: People converting to other faiths, joining new kinds of churches, or ditching religion altogether. If you count switches among the major traditions in Protestantism (mainline, evangelical, and historically black congregations), roughly 42 percent of Americans no longer consider themselves part of the religion in which they were raised. The researchers point out that this estimate is probably on the low side; many people leave their childhood religions, only to return to them later in life. If those decisions were measured, the estimates of “religious switching” would likely be even higher…