A local resident at the Floyd Country Store this week asked me if I am a Christian. I told her that I was not a member of any Christian church or denomination.
“So,” she responded, “you are an atheist.”
“No,” I said. “I am a man of faith. I believe in God. I don’t believe in organized religion.”
“That is not possible,” said her companion. “Christianity is the only true faith. If you are not a Christian, you cannot have faith.” They walked away before I could respond.
Pollsters at Gallup say more than half of Americans no longer belong to any church, synagogue or mosque — the first time in the polling company’s history that denominational membership has dropped below 50% since it began asking questions about faith and/or religion.
In 1937, when Gallup first asked, 73% of responders said they belonged to a denomination within organized religion. Now the number is 47%.
Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois, and a pastor in the American Baptist Church, told The Washington Post in March that a growing number of Americans feel church membership is “a relic of an older generation. Americans’ attachment to institutional religion is on the decline.”
In a new book, “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going,” Burge predicts that the United States will no longer have a dominant religion in 30 years.
Tara Isabella Burton, author of “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” attributes the national decline in religious affiliation to two major trends among younger Americans. First, she points to broader shifts suggesting a larger distrust of institutions, including police and pharmaceutical companies. Some Americans are disillusioned by the behavior of religious leaders, including the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal and the strong White evangelical alignment with former president Donald Trump.
The other major trend Burton describes is how people are mixing and matching from various religious traditions to create their own. Many people who don’t identify with a particular religious institution still say they believe in God, pray or do things that tend to be associated with faith.
Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in The Atlantic that religious belief is really political and not spiritual. This, he concludes, is how the right-wing has flocked to support Donald Trump, a man whose religious values are considered lacking or nonexistent.
“Christians in the Republican Party,” he writes, “are being less defined by their faith than by a set of more narrow concerns.”
“The vacuum [of religion] can’t just remain a vacuum,” Hamid adds. “Americans are believers in some sense, and there has to be structures of belief and belonging. The question is, what takes the place of that religious affiliation?”
Many could argue that what some call “religious affiliation” is really personal and political bias.
As a man of faith, I do not consider one — or any — religious belief superior to another. I cannot dismiss the Jewish faith belief that Christ was not the son of God nor do I reject the Christian belief that he is.
I read many of the views of many religions. They often differ.
In the 1970s, I participated in a panel discussion on religion and media at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. At one point, a student asked the priest who was moderator a basic question: “Why are there so many differing religions?”
“In many cases, it depends on which part of the Bible that one feels is correct,” the priest said.
That prompted me to ask: “If you can accept that there are areas of the Bible that are not factual or literal and that belief creates different religious faiths, how can you reject those who chose to dismiss all the book as their reason to be atheist?”
“I will have to think about that and will get back to you on it,” the priest said. “Your question disturbs me.”
I never heard back from him. When I tried to contact him later, I found he had left the church.