According to the Pew Research Center, almost one in five Americans say they are not affiliated with a particular religion. It’s a trend that has been growing steadily each year. In 2007, only 15 percent identified themselves as unaffiliated.
This trend is mirrored here in Harris County, according to Dr. Stephen Klineberg, who conducts the Kinder Houston Area Survey at Rice University. While the numbers fluctuate strongly from year to year due to the survey’s high margin of error, Klineberg says the trend is clear.
“That shift from six to seven percent in the early ’80s to 11-to-12 percent in 2011 to 2012, that could not have happened by chance.”
He says while Houston is a microcosm of America’s future in terms of ethnic, racial and cultural diversity, it reflects the whole world in regards of religious diversity. Although both Houston and the nation have a similar trend in the growing number of the unaffiliated, Klineberg says Houston is different in that it’s part of the Bible Belt, and that it’s a major destination for Latin American immigrants – many of whom are religious.
He does expect the trend to continue both locally and nationwide, but points out that Americans are unique in their strong religious faith compared to other industrialized nations.
“I expect it to keep rising up to some point. And it’s hard to know when we reach that point. I do not expect America to become like Europe in its overwhelming secularism.”
Dr. Lynn Mitchell, head of the University of Houston’s religious studies department, seconds that. He says if anything, Europeans tend more to go back to their Christian roots. Regarding the rise of Americans without a religious affiliation, he says this trend is a reaction to the fundamentalist side of the Christian faith, which is more present in the media than the moderate side.
“The modern Christian fundamentalists are really much more fundamentalistic than they were even 100 year ago. And so a lot of young people are reacting against it. And these churches are losing a large portion of the young people, basically on areas of opposition to modern science and also some moral questions.”
Mitchell says what gets lost when fewer people affiliate with a religion is the community aspect churches and other houses of worship provide.
“Judaism and Christianity have always considered itself a community where people get together and learn to love each other and learn to love other people.”
While both the Pew survey and Klineberg’s Houston Area Survey identify a relentless upward trend, a Gallup poll found only a very slight increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans from 2011 to last year. Gallup says this may suggest a leveling off in the years ahead.