ST. LOUIS — On a recent Wednesday night, Patrick Foran spent his evening with one of the country’s most prominent humanists, even as churches throughout the area would have rolled out the red carpet to have him at weekly Bible study.
Foran, a 25-year-old student, was listening to a lecture at the St. Louis County Library by Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor who has become a hero to the growing number of young Americans who are rejecting institutional religion.
Many in Pinker’s audience were, like Foran, under 30 and religiously unaffiliated, making them part of a remarkable statistic released a day earlier by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life that could signal a dramatic secularization of the nation’s religious landscape in the 21st century.
The Pew report found that one of every five Americans is now unaffiliated with any religion — an increase of 5 percentage points since 2007, and the largest number of “nones,” as Pew calls them, that the organization has ever recorded.
Among young people, the number was even higher. One of every three Americans under 30 claims no religious affiliation.
Foran fits that latter category perfectly. Like the others identified in the survey, he had a religious upbringing. In fact, Foran attended Catholic grade school and high school.
But as an adult, he felt a growing distance between his intellectual pursuits and the doctrine of his childhood.
“When I was 18, I began reading (evolutionary biologist and atheist author) Richard Dawkins,” Foran said. “And with podcasts, websites and social media, young people are taking in all points of view. Access to all of that information has made my generation more skeptical of institutions in general.”
Pew classified the “nones” as those who said they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
But being unaffiliated does not necessarily mean a rejection of religion. Nearly 20 percent of the those unaffiliated with a religious group nevertheless considered themselves “religious,” and another 37 percent told Pew they were “spiritual but not religious.”
“The United States remains a highly religious country,” said Greg Smith, senior researcher at Pew. “Nevertheless this report does show evidence of declining religious commitment in American society.”
That trend worries religious leaders, who are mobilizing to try to reclaim the growing ranks of the unaffiliated, particularly young people.
The Rev. Darrin Patrick, pastor of The Journey in St. Louis, said his church is seeking to tap into the desire of the Millennial generation to help others. They “want to make different choices about their free time and volunteerism,” he said.
Patrick said that as a Christian pastor, he didn’t consider the Pew numbers such bad news. “These numbers are encouraging because they say that people are saying, ‘I’m a free agent,’” he said. “It means we’re getting less religious and more spiritual, which I think is a good thing.”
Nevertheless, religious leaders have launched efforts to try to stanch the bleeding.
St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson recently introduced a pastoral letter on evangelization, called “Go and Announce the Gospel of the Lord,” to an assembly of representatives of parishes throughout the archdiocese.
“The call of the Holy Father to a ‘new evangelization’ must be answered,” Carlson wrote. “If we are to pass on to our children and grandchildren a way of life that is in harmony with God’s plan for humanity … we can’t go on with ‘business as usual’ or we will be, for the most part, out of business.”
Carlson reported that in the last 20 years, the number of parishes in the archdiocese has shrunk by 24 percent, Catholic marriages are down 43 percent and baptisms are down 42 percent.
Enrollment in Catholic high schools has held steady since 1991, but, Carlson wrote, “there has been an alarming decline” in the number of public high school students who receive Catholic instruction. “Only 34 percent of high-school-aged Catholic children are receiving any religious instruction,” he said.
According to the Pew report, the Catholic church was actually in better shape than other Christian denominations, its membership remaining relatively flat over the last five years. The Protestant church is another story. Evangelical and mainline Protestant churches lost 5 percent of their members since 2007.
While Pew reported that membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has remained flat in recent years, the church is not taking any chances. Last week the church’s president said he would lower the age when Mormon teenagers would be allowed to serve their two-year missions. The ages will drop from 19 to 18 for men, and from 21 to 19 for women.
One reason for what Pew calls the “gradual softening of religious commitment” among Americans is the perception that religious institutions are deeply entangled with politics.
David Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of “American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us,” sets the beginning of the marriage of religion and politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the rise of the Christian Coalition, the 1988 presidential candidacy of the Rev. Pat Robertson and presidential contender Pat Buchanan’s “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention.
“You begin to see the Republican party emphasizing its position on social issues and beginning to use religious rhetoric and symbolism, putting religion in the forefront,” Campbell said. “All of a sudden, the growth of the ‘nones’ begins.”
Foran said his generation has been turned off by the political involvement of religious institutions.
“The rise of the far right in partnership with Christianity makes young people question religion in general,” Foran said. “When churches do that, young people start to distance themselves, or hesitate to get involved with religion in the first place.”
In the Pew report, 67 percent of those unaffiliated with a religion said churches and other religious institutions are too involved with politics, compared to 46 percent of the general public and 41 percent of those who are religiously affiliated.
In his pastoral letter, Carlson blames the Catholic decline partially on “secularization,” beginning with “aggressively anti-Christian intellectual currents born in Enlightenment Europe in the 18th century.”
“When governments who adopt or embrace these currents in whole or part come into power, they almost invariably attempt to destroy faith in their countries by hard or soft persecution,” Carlson wrote.
The Rev. Jim Stern, pastor of Destiny Church in Town and Country, Mo., said as a 33-year-old himself, he is hopeful about reversing the growth of secularism among the young.
Saying Millennials are “highly social,” Stern said he tries to create an atmosphere in his church “where they’re not just sitting around and observing and not getting anything out of it.”
And he’s optimistic that even if young people aren’t engaged with religion now, they might be down the line.
“You can leave the local church, but you’ll still have a lot of needs in life,” he said. “There will be seasons of your life where you think you’re invincible, and others when you realize you can’t do anything right. In those moments, we need to just love people and be there when they have questions.”
But Steven Pinker, the professor and author who spoke at the St. Louis County, Mo., Library last week, sees a more global and unavoidable trend. In an interview, he said the Pew report (and other similar polls taken in recent years) simply confirmed what was essentially “the direction the Western world is going in.”
“Look at slavery, women in the workforce, spanking children, capital punishment — in each case, the U.S. followed places like Europe and Japan,” he said. “The rest of the world is secular, and we’re catching up.”
After listening to Pinker’s lecture, Theresia Matthews, a 28-year-old social worker, said she identified as “irreligious.”
“I have nothing against organized religion,” she said. “I just don’t care about it.”