Religion driving people away

March 15, 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 more than 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 largesse 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 wakeup 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.”

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Richard Heckler 9 years ago

Church is a mammoth tax exempt industry.

devobrun 9 years ago

"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."

Leonard goes on to separate God from religion. But he doesn't address the obvious media influence that occurs as well. If all I knew about science was what I read in the headlines.... If all I knew about acting was what I read about Hollywood.... If all I knew about the inner city, farming, energy, music....

Well you get the picture. Created reality abounds in the headlines Mr. Pitts. Using headlines as a reference to develop an opinion is fraught with error.

womanwarrior 9 years ago

When religions start moving into the field of politics, they always suffer. For example, for years the Russian Orthodox Church supported and profited from the rules of the tsars. The people couldn't rely on the church to bring about democratic reforms, because they were getting rich from the royalty, so the people turned to communism. Maybe if the church had either stayed out of it or promoted reform, there would have been a different outcome. When people like us who believe in the love and forgiveness taught by Jesus and other prophets look at how some have exploited believers and pushed hateful agendas, then of course we turn away from organized religion. You don't have to belong to a church to be a moral person. You don't even have to believe in God to be moral. I know many moral, responsible atheists.

texburgh 9 years ago

Pitts makes sense. The extremism promoted by various religions is pushing people away.

I, for one, am a lifelong Catholic who is being pushed away by the church's political demands of the faithful. That we must abandon support for the poor or working people, that we must forget our opposition to the death penalty, all in the name of voting anti-abortion is just wrong. My church has a long tradition of being pro-labor, supporting programs for the poor, and working to end the death penalty. Today the bishop says all that is irrelevant if the candidate is pro-choice. They tell me how to vote and they forbid pro choice Catholic legislators from taking communion.

Now they are moving into a rabidly anti-gay agenda as if they feel the need to pander to the evangelical protestants.

I cannot accept my church turning to extremist positions. I know lots of life-long Catholics who feel the same way.

I can now choose to live a life guided by moral principles without going to mass and giving money to a church that has turned from its core beliefs.

Maddy Griffin 9 years ago

texburgh-there are a lot of life-long Catholics who feel as you do. Pitts always makes so much sense.

yourworstnightmare 9 years ago

Great column. Organized religion is driving away the moderates, thinkers, and intellectuals from their ranks. Good luck with this as a long-term strategy for survival.

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