If you have faith in the numbers, and I do, Americans are moving away from organized religion in droves. This is not a myth; it’s backed up by hard data.
“The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining,” states a recent study by the Pew Research Center.
In a survey of more than 35,000 Americans, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank found that “the Christian share” of the U.S. population had shrunk 8 percentage points in seven years, from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014.
Meanwhile, the share of atheists, agnostics and other nonreligious people jumped 6 percentage points – from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent.
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It’s a trend that’s immune to easy punditry. It’s not just the Ph.D.s and “elites” who are turning away from organized houses of worship – it’s the GEDs too. It’s women and men.
Older people are experiencing a diminishing faith in institutions of faith, too.
But it’s especially pronounced among young people – the “millennial” generation that gets so much attention and undeserved scorn in mainstream media.
“It’s good news to me that people don’t have to rely on religion for their everyday lives,” said Richlin Chan, a state corrections officer and – at 33 – on the older end of the millennial spectrum.
“I’ve stopped going to church altogether. I do my own thing on Sundays.”
It’s not as if Chan doesn’t believe in things bigger than himself. Going into corrections was a way of honoring his parents, who Chan said were also corrections officers.
On his Facebook page, Chan proudly posted his deployment letter for active military service. In a way, the letter is a symbol. It shows that Chan believes in his country with more than the easy platitudes the rest of us can toss around without risking anything.
Chan is the U.S. Army Reserves, a first lieutenant and platoon leader. In two weeks or so, the Granite Bay High School graduate is shipping out – first to Texas and then to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It’s a 13-month deployment. He’ll have 52 soldiers under him as he guards individuals considered threats to national security.
On the Army Reserve website, these words described why soldiers like Chan do what they do in places such as Guantánamo, Afghanistan and other dangerous places:
“It is not only our mission, but also our duty and sacred trust as we train and prepare America’s sons and daughters for the most demanding of challenges they will face while deployed.”
Trust. Duty. Mission. Sacred.
Don’t those words essentially mean faith?
Chan, whose entire life is geared toward family, country and community, was raised a Pentecostal but turned away when biblical stories rang hollow and when church doctrine didn’t speak to him intellectually.
“The more research I did, the more contradictions I found,” he said.
It really hit home to him during his years as a guard at San Quentin – which he considers to be far more dangerous than the assignment ahead at Guantánamo.
At San Quentin, Chan said he’d be the lone guard in a dorm of 200 inmates. He remembers a small chapel for death row inmates and the sermons that didn’t make sense to him.
“According to the Bible, these guys who commit heinous crimes go to heaven – when nonbelievers who do good go to hell,” he said. “They go to heaven just because they repented? Same thing with priests who raped disabled orphans?”
Chan isn’t vocal about his beliefs. He answered the questions because I asked them. But he is representative of a younger generation questioning religious dogma promoted within churches of all denominations.
Questioning organized religion is hardly new. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, wrote this in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to religious leaders criticizing his civil rights campaign:
“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club.”
That was from 1963, a powerful indictment of church leaders and congregants who sat idly by amid the injustices of segregation.
Today, church doctrine that calls same-sex marriage a sin is what drives many people – especially the young – away from the pews.
Phillip Ung, a lobbyist, Mormon and 31-year-old millennial, confronted this conflict when Mormon and Catholic churches became involved in campaigns to ban same-sex marriage.
“I stopped going to church for a year,” Ung said. “How do I reconcile it? I support gay marriage as a matter of civil discourse. The government shouldn’t be discriminating.”
He later returned to his church. “Having faith doesn’t mean you are not allowed to question,” he said. “Being the son or daughter of our heavenly father is very comforting to me. It gives you a warmth in your heart. It’s what I continue to to feel.”
My Catholic church, like all churches, is a human institution. I’ve sat with my bishop over coffee and disagreed on marriage equality. I’ve gotten awkward looks in the pews at Sunday masses for writing about marriage equality.
Human beings – like the Bible – are full of contradictions, viewed differently according to interpretation.
Would Chan’s beliefs be enough to sustain me? No. Would my version work for him? Probably not.
But life requires some kind of faith – in yourself, in your convictions – regardless if you subscribe to organized religion.