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Study finds religious affiliation is at lowest point since 1930s

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The Intervarsity Christian Fellowship is one of the religious groups on the UC Berkeley campus.

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News Editor

MARCH 14, 2013

UC Berkeley sociologists have found that religious affiliation is at its lowest point ever in the United States since researchers began tracking it in the 1930s.

The study, led by UC Berkeley sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, uncovered a correlation between college-aged individuals and a decline in religious affiliation.

Whereas 9.7 percent of respondents aged 18 to 24 claimed no religious affiliation in 1990, 32 percent did so in 2012, according to the data aggregated from the General Social Survey.

“The younger and more educated people are less and less dependent on religion for their sense of being,” said professor David Hollinger, who teaches in the campus department of history and specializes in the intellectual history of the United States.

Ron Pickell, pastor at Berkeley Seventh Day Adventist Church, noted that overbearing religious institutions are partially to blame for this decline. He said they create an “either-or” schism between religion and science that many cannot reconcile. College gives students the chance to step back and question their beliefs, he said.

“What’s unfortunate is the Church has said this questioning is off-limits and that God is truth, and you can’t question truth,” Pickell said, adding that he has seen a discernible decline in church attendance during his 33 years as a pastor. “If students have grown up with a view of God and religion that doesn’t allow for elasticity — if they can’t use their heart and their mind in relating to religion  — then at some point God doesn’t make sense, and they go with their mind.”

According to Hout, Catholics in particular — known for their “conservative social agenda” and stringent opposition to liberal politics — are the “group losing the most.” The survey shows the percentage of those identifying as Catholic has dropped from 35 percent to 24 percent. Those claiming to have “no religion” rose from 8 percent to nearly 20 percent.

Fischer said that the rise in secularism has been spurred in part due to religious institutions inserting themselves in political battles like abortion and gay marriage. As organized religion has become more allied with conservative politics, this one-sided identification has alienated social liberalism, Fischer said.

According to the survey, funded by the National Science Foundation, nearly 40 percent of liberals claim no religious affiliation, in contrast to only around 9 percent of conservatives.

Fischer hypothesized that that the secularist attitudes born during the cultural revolution of the 1960s have been passed down to today’s youth.

UC Berkeley freshman Taylor Madigan reflects this generational trend. He said he began to question the existence of God during a thunderstorm as a child, positing that humans invented God as a way to explain such a phenomenon.

“I believed in God when I was little, but almost as an extracurricular (activity),” Madigan said, adding that he protested his bar mitzvah as a child. “I just never saw religion as a thing.”

In the study, researchers found that while 20 percent of Americans affiliate themselves with “no religion,” only 3 percent call themselves atheists.

Hout said that Americans tend to agree with the notion of a higher god but remain uncomfortable with organized religion and tradition.

In the study, researchers discovered a nearly 5 percent drop in those who “know God really exists,” coupled with a 5 percent increase in those who believe in a “higher power of some kind.” This finding suggests a direct flow from agnosticism to atheism.

“I would comfortably call myself both (agnostic and atheist),” Madigan said. “Being ‘agnostic’ is just a stepping-stone to abandoning any belief in a deity.”

Congruently, Hollinger, a specialist in U.S. religion, said the instinct to ambiguously classify oneself as agnostic is perhaps a facade to cover secularization and assume an air of astuteness.

“The mushier the babble about being ‘spiritual but not religious’, the more likely that the speaker is simply eager to curry favor — to show that oneself is in the company of the deep and the wise,” Hollinger said. “To deny that one has a dimension of spirituality is, in the United States today, to invite the judgment that one is arrogant and aloof and elitist.”

Virgie Hoban covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @VirgieHoban.
LAST UPDATED

MARCH 15, 2013


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