With some headlines screaming “US becoming less religious,” and others proclaiming “Religious Americans keep the faith,” there is a reason to wonder about the fate of faith in this country.
Are the pews half full or half empty?
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study published in May, the number of Americans who affiliate with religious institutions has fallen. The number of “nones” — those with no religious affiliation — who believe in God has dropped from 70 to 61 percent in the past seven years. That is especially true among millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996. Only 38 percent of that generation say religion is important in their lives and fewer than one in three — 28 percent — attend religious services weekly.
But do those questions fully answer what is happening?
Richard Newton, assistant professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown College, said the questions Pew asks are important. But what is missing are the followup questions — the kind, he said, that pepper political debates.
“We need to be asking different questions,” Newton said. “If people are saying they are or are not as religious, we need to follow up and ask ‘Why are people saying this or that?’ ”
The Rev. David M. Mellott, vice president of academic affairs and dean of Lancaster Theological Seminary, has similar concerns.
Measuring church attendance, he said, does not measure religiosity.
“This tells us what Pew thinks religiosity is and how Americans measure up within their framework. But it doesn't tell us what Americans think it means to be religious or to believe.”
In fact, he said, peoples’ understanding of what it means to believe has shifted.
“Many people today think of ‘believe’ as the cultivation of a relationship, particularly a relationship with God,” Mellott explained. “They consider belief in God to be a matter of cultivating a relationship of trust with the source of their life, of life itself.”
John Zeswitz, executive vice president at Lancaster Bible College, acknowledged in an email that while church attendance is “a great indicator” of religiosity, “we may need to change our definition of regular church attendance given the implications of online church and community.”
When it comes to millennials, a significant number say they are spiritual but not religious.
That does not surprise Newton.
“They’re steeped in the notion of individual self-worth,” he said, and are therefore “very independent.”
That can be found in their belief of something greater than themselves, an example of which would be the growth in volunteerism among that age group.
While some are turning away from their parents’ traditions, he said, others are searching for traditions outside the mainstream such as Buddhism or Hinduism, which is the spiritual side of yoga.
Zeswitz’ experience is somewhat different. He agreed that millenials have a “well-documented proclivity to action.” But he also cited a recent study by the Barna Group that found practicing millennials “hold a high view of scripture. They also represent a significant population in the statistic ... on the growth in evangelicals.
“That,” he said, “seems like good news for the church. “
The Pew study did offer some positives. While the percentage of adult core believers dipped, fully 77 percent of all adult Americans are religiously affiliated. And among that group, the percentage of adults who pray daily actually ticked up from 64 percent to 66 percent.
Mellott said he hopes the study inspires “theologians, religion scholars, sociologists and psychologists to expand their research protocols beyond measuring the extent to which people conform to their indicators of religiosity to include investigating how people understand religiosity, spirituality and belief.
“I believe the human search for meaning is alive and well,” he said. “and that it is manifesting itself in more varied ways.”