This month’s Pew Report on religious affiliation in America has drawn much well-deserved attention, particularly two of its findings: a continuing increase in the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion – the “Nones” – and a continuing decrease in the percentage who identify as Protestant. In the last five years, the Nones have gone from roughly 15% of American adults to roughly 20%. The increase is especially pronounced among adults under the age of 30, a third of whom say they are religiously unaffiliated. And, for the first time since Pew started polling, the percentage of adults who identify as Protestant has dropped below 50%.
These statistics could have profound significance for the future of American religion and law. Take the increased percentage of Nones among people under 30. In a couple of decades, this age cohort will be running American cultural, legal, and political institutions. Traditionally, American institutions have viewed religion as a good thing, both for individuals and society. Will they continue to do so if they are run by people who themselves lack a religious identity, who view religion, at best, with indifference? Will legislatures accommodate religious minorities as readily? Will courts defer to traditions that reflect assumptions large percentages of the population no longer share? It seems doubtful.
The media has jumped on the rise of the Nones, predicting everything from a political realignment (good news for Democrats, bad news for Republicans) to major changes in education and family structure. Maybe – but we need to be cautious. We shouldn’t assume that the increase in the percentage of Nones will remain stable over time. Generations typically become more religiously observant as they age (though this generation seems to be starting from an unusually non-religious position). More important, the future has a way of surprising us. For example, according to Putnam and Campbell’s recent study, American Grace, a marked upsurge in religious observance among young adults (ages 21-34) occurred in America between 1952 and 1964. On the basis of that upsurge, one would have predicted a bright future for American religious institutions over the next couple of decades. Let’s just say things didn’t turn out that way.
Similarly, we shouldn’t assume that the decline of American Protestantism will radically transform our religious culture. American religion has so completely adopted the Protestant form that the decline of the original model – even if it continues – seems unlikely to change things. In America today, even Buddhists and Hindus organize themselves as self-governing, Protestant-style congregations, with entrepreneurial clergy, Sunday Schools, and community outreach programs. The New England way lives on in the temples of Orange County.
The statistics in the Pew Report are an important indication of where are today, and Pew deserves a lot of credit for compiling them. And maybe we really are on the verge of something unprecedented in American religious life. We shouldn’t assume, though, that we can predict what the future will bring.