by William Trollinger
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of religion in 21st-century America is the rapid growth of those who are not affiliated with any religious tradition. As Jan Stets notes in the introduction to Empty Churches: Non-affiliation in America (Oxford, 2021), survey data reveals that between 1974 and 1991 the percentage of the religiously non-affiliated remained steady at approximately 7 percent. Then it started to rise, reaching 14 percent in 2000, 18 percent in 2010, and 23 percent in 2014. And – in data that has emerged since the writing of Empty Churches – in 2019 26 percent of all Americans described themselves as agnostic, atheist, or nothing in particular.
Unimaginable to scholars of religion three decades ago, the United States seems to be headed in the direction of Europe.
A few years ago Stets (Professor and Director of the Social Psychology Research Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside) and Fr. James Heft, S.M. (just-retired President of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California) embarked on a collaborative project to help us understand this phenomenon. Toward that end they gathered 17 scholars of religion and professionals in the field who would use their expertise to reflect on and produce original research on the rapid rise of religious non-affiliation in America.
The result is the just-published Empty Churches. I am pleased to have a chapter in this volume, which is entitled: “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right.” In this essay I make the case that
the quantitative and qualitative evidence strongly support the argument that the Christian Right has been a primary reason for the remarkable rise of the religious nones in the United States since the 1990s. And while it may be too early to say with certainty, it is very easy to imagine . . . that the post-2016 data will reveal that the Christian Right is driving even greater numbers of Americans to declare that they have no religious preference. Whether or not irony is the right word to apply here, one cannot escape noticing that a movement that so stridently opposes the secularizing of America is helping to accelerate this secularization. (186)
This Thursday night (March 11) at 6.30 pm Pacific Time there will be a webinar on Empty Churches. Participants include sociologist Nancy Ammerman from Boston University (“The Many Meanings of Non-Affiliation”), philosopher Bernard Prusak from King’s College (“Religious Non-Affiliation and Objections of Conscience”), and myself. After our brief presentations there will be time for questions and answers.
Registration is free – here’s the link – and we would love to have you join us!
Bill you are so right that the selling out of the Christian Right over the past 4-5 years is what has pushed many people, myself included, out of church entirely. Even before this, I was struggling with feeling like there was no room for me in the church – no room for my questions, my doubts, my expanding world-view. I would sit in church and want to raise my hand and say “But…this just doesn’t seem TRUE? or right?” If I tried to share these questions with anyone besides my closest friends I would get looks of pity and the usual “pray more” or “read the Bible more” answers, when that wasn’t the solution at all. As more churches embraced the outrage of the Culture Wars, it just confirmed my suspicion that no, I was not welcome here anymore. Unless I bought into the War on Christmas, hyper-patriotism, bemoaning cancel culture, the evils of progressivism of course. It was the breaking point for me. I do thankfully know many progressive Christians who do not align themselves with the Christian Right, and reading their works has brought me great reassurance and “a-ha” moments, and perhaps there will come a day when I will want to venture back into that tradition. But for now, I want a world-view that is more colorful, more vibrant, more inclusive…and the vision of the Christian Right is anything but that. I am happy being an agnostic, happier than I ever was when I tried to squeeze myself into that mold.
Thank you, Jennifer, for your heartfelt, powerful, and eloquent comments. I can’t begin to tell you how many ex-evangelicals I have met who share your sentiments.
I am writing my thesis on Fr. J.A. Zahm, who served as Vice President of the University of Notre Dame in the late nineteenth century. He also taught physics and chemistry. As a proponent of evolution in an era suspicious of the theory’s implications, he encouraged his audiences to keep the faith; science and religion were not mutually exclusive. Fr. Zahm pushed against tendencies toward agnosticism and atheism among the faithful who felt compelled to choose. But, just as walls do not work when built in borderlands, any bulwark that the Christian Right attempts to build against progress is counterproductive and damaging (not to mention a waste of money). Why can’t faith be simple? Why can’t it just be a matter of childlike trust? Can’t we just chuck the complications that culture wars bring to our faith? Ignore them? I suspect Fr. Zahm, like many of us now, felt as if his body and spirit were living conduits of that constant negotiation between tradition and modernity; he did his best to keep hope in God alive during a time when many people felt forced to relinquish their faith.
Thanks for your very good comment, Rachael. What you are doing in your M.A. thesis is right on point.