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Survey: Many Americans believe rise in number of non-religious is bad

Published: Friday, July 5 2013 10:55 p.m. MDT

"Calling oneself 'spiritual but not religious' turned out to be more of an antisocial characteristic, unlike identifying oneself as religious," said Baylor researcher Aaron Franzen, a doctoral candidate and study co-author.

Impact of religion

At the same time, a growing number of non-religious Americans who identify as atheists appear to be seeking a more social and communal experience with other humanists that mimics the weekly worship services of religious Americans, according to several recent news reports.

Among those reports was a New York Times story on an atheist movement in Louisiana, led by a former Pentecostal priest. Some of those who met one Sunday last month, including their leader Jerry DeWitt, said they missed the communal experience of the churches they once attended before they rejected a belief in God and shunned organized religion.

“There are many people that even though they come to this realization, they miss the way the church works in a way that very few other communities can duplicate,” DeWitt said. “The secular can learn that just because we value critical thinking and the scientific method, that doesn’t mean we suddenly become disembodied and we can no longer benefit from our emotional lives.”

Among the benefits of regular church service attendance, research has shown, are better mental and physical health and more charitable activity in the community.

Atheist blogger Harry Cheadle cited that research recently when he wrote about his experience at a Sunday assembly of humanists in New York, concluding atheists can help their cause by not identifying themselves simply by what they don't believe in.

"Atheists forming communities among themselves is nice, but atheists getting over themselves and finding a way to proclaim their nonbelief without jeering at religions is even better," he wrote.

They have a ways to go, according to public opinion surveys.

Pew reports that about 6 percent of the American public identify as either atheist or agnostic, while 14 percent identify as nothing in particular. And among unaffiliated, more than half (68 percent) believe in God with varying degrees of certainty.

But Americans tend to have a more negative view toward atheists than those who say they are simply not religious. A survey earlier this year by the Public Religion Research Institute asked respondents about how several political, religious, social and ethnic groups impact American culture. Researchers found 39 percent said atheists are changing American culture and way of life for the worse, compared with 31 percent who felt the same way about non-religious people.

“Whenever we put atheists on a list like this and we compare them to other groups, atheists tend to come in towards the bottom of that list,” said Robert P. Jones, the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute. “Americans tend to hold a lot of reservations about atheists.”

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown

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