Almost half of all Americans say recent growth in the number of non-religious people is a bad thing for society, according to a new survey that also found even those who are not affiliated with a religion see the trend as troubling.
The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life recently asked some 4,000 Americans whether having “more people who are not religious” is a good thing, a bad thing, or doesn’t matter for American society. Most (48 percent) said it was bad, while 11 percent said it was good. Another 39 percent said that it did not make much difference.
Pew asked the question more than six months after it released findings that showed the number of Americans who don't identify with any religion had grown to nearly 20 percent from 2007-12, or an estimated 46 million people.
Gallup countered with a survey released in January that showed the so-called "nones" made up 17.8 percent of the population and their growth had stalled, increasing less than 1 percentage point from 2011 to 2012.
Regardless of the growth rate, the latest Pew analysis showed that both religious and non-religious people don't like it. Nearly one-fifth of those who identified as non-religious said increasing numbers of their kind is a bad thing, compared to one-quarter who said it was good and more than half who said it didn't matter.
Pew did not explore why respondents held these views. But separate research from Baylor University, a private Christian research school in Texas, comparing social behaviors of religious and non-religious young adults, and news reports of humanist groups adopting some of the social trappings of organized religion, offer some insights into why the American public values religious affiliation.
Impact of youth
When Pew broke down its latest poll according to how often people attend worship services, 69 percent who go at least weekly said growth in the number of people who are not religious is a bad thing for society. Among weekly church attenders, white evangelical Protestants had the most negative view of the trend, with 85 percent saying it was bad, and Hispanic Catholics were the least concerned, with just 39 percent saying it was bad and 49 percent saying it didn't matter.
Broken down by gender and age, women (49 percent) were more likely than men (46 percent) to say a growing number of non-religious people is bad, and adults younger than 30 (33 percent) were the least concerned about the trend. Those in the 50-64 age group (57 percent) were the most likely to say that the more non-religious, the worse off society will be.
"Younger adults also are less likely than their older counterparts to be affiliated with a religion," the Pew report said. "However, the association with age tends to hold even among those who have a religious affiliation. Among adults ages 18 to 29 who have a religious affiliation, 47 percent say having more people who are not religious is a bad thing for society, compared with roughly six-in-10 among their counterparts ages 50 and older."
In a study that suggests nonreligious youths are more anti-social, researchers at Baylor University looked at the criminal behaviors of young adults who differed in their religious affiliation and whether they identified as being spiritual or not. The researchers found that young adults who deem themselves "spiritual but not religious" are more likely to commit property crimes than those who identify themselves as either "religious and spiritual" or "religious but not spiritual."
The study, published in the journal Criminology, also showed that those who identified as neither spiritual nor religious are less likely to commit property crimes than the "spiritual but not religious" individuals. But no difference was found between the two groups when it came to violent crimes.
"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.”
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