Commentary: Americans are losing their religion

The Miami HeraldMarch 16, 2009 

We are losing our religion.

That, with apologies to R.E.M., is the startling conclusion of a new study, the American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by researchers at Trinity College of Hartford, Conn. The poll of over 54,000 American adults found a sharp erosion in the number of people claiming religious affiliation.

A few highlights: The number of people who call themselves Christian is 76 percent, down 10 percentage points since 1990.

Thirty percent of married couples did not have a religious ceremony.

Better than one in four Americans do not expect a religious funeral.

It is important to reiterate that we are talking about overall percentages. In raw numbers, there are actually about 22 million more Christians now than in 1990. Still, the trend is clear, particularly as illustrated in one telling statistic: In 1990, 8.2 percent (about 14 million) of us said "none" when asked to specify their religion. Last year, 15 percent (34 million) did.

Some have suggested our loss of faith is due to increased diversity, mobility and immigration. I'm sure there's something to that, but I tend to think the most important cause is simpler: Religion has become an ugly thing.

People of faith usually respond to that ugliness – by which I mean a seemingly endless cycle of scandal, controversy, hypocrisy, violence and TV preachers saying idiot things – in one of two ways. Either they defend it (making them part of the problem), or they regard it as a series of isolated, albeit unfortunate, episodes. But irreligious people do neither.

And people of faith should ask themselves: What is the cumulative effect upon outside observers of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker living like lords on the largess of the poor, multiplied by Jimmy Swaggart's pornography addiction, plus Eric Rudolph bombing Olympians and gays in the name of God, plus Muslims hijacking airplanes in the name of God, multiplied by the church that kicked out some members because they voted Democrat, divided by people caterwauling on courthouse steps as a rock bearing the Ten Commandments was removed, multiplied by the square root of Catholic priests preying on little boys while the church looked on and did nothing, multiplied by Muslims rioting over cartoons, plus the ongoing demonization of gay men and lesbians, divided by all those "traditional values" coalitions and "family values" councils that try to bully public schools into becoming worship houses, with morning prayers and science lessons from the book of Genesis? Then subtract selflessness, service, sacrifice, holiness and hope.

Do the math, and I bet you'll draw the same conclusion the researchers did.

Who can be surprised if the sheer absurdity, fundamentalist cruelty and ungodly hypocrisy that have characterized so much "religion" in the last 30 years have driven people away? If all I knew of God was what I had seen in the headlines, I would not be eager to make His acquaintance. I am thankful I know more.

Including that God and religion are not synonymous. God is, for the faithful at least, the sovereign creator of all creation. Religion is what men and women put in place, ostensibly to worship and serve Him. Too often, though, religion worships and serves that which has nothing to do with Him, worships money and serves politics, worships charisma and serves ego, worships intolerance and serves self.

The ARIS survey should serve as a wake-up call to organized religion. It continues in this manner at the risk of irrelevance. I am reminded of a line from the movie Oh, God!, with George Burns as the deity and John Denver as the grocery store manager reluctantly recruited to spread The Word.

"I don't even go to church," says the manager.

And God says, "Neither do I."

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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