God is tied.
A recent survey showed there are now as many Americans who claim “no religion” — 23 percent — as there are who identify as Catholic or evangelical, the two largest affiliations.
This trend has been rising steadily, reportedly growing nearly 270 percent in the last 30 years. Which means next time they take the poll, America’s most popular answer to “What is your religious tradition?” will be “None.””
This might shock our forefathers, who created this country for the right to religious freedom, and who referenced the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence.
So why are people so discouraged? Has God lost His (or Her) luster? Or is it something else?
Well. Before we look to the heavens, let’s look across the earth.
Bad things, in the name of religion
Here is a random sampling of things done or said by “religious” people in the recent past:
Thousands of Catholic priests sexually abused innocent children for decades, and shamed them into silence.
Islamic jihads, or “Holy wars,” have been the rallying cry for killing people all over the world, including on 9/11.
Hindus and Muslims in India continued their long-standing conflict, killing one another in scores of attacks.
White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, boasted Christianity as justification for their actions.
Religion has been cited to reject the LGBTQ community. TV preachers have sold religion to finance indulgent lifestyles. And politicians use religion to get elected, but their behavior often belies an ethical compass.
Judge Roy Moore placed a giant Ten Commandments monument in front of the Alabama Judicial Building, but later was accused by three women of sexual assault, including two who were teenagers at the time. President Clinton attended church regularly, but had an extra-marital affair while in office. Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, identifies as a Christian, but when she says she believes God “wanted Donald Trump to become President,” she upsets a lot of people.
Critics will point out, correctly, that more wars have been fought over religion than anything in history, that the Old Testament is full of battles in the name of God, that the Crusades were all about religion, that religious conflicts are still killing countless people today in Africa.
Of course, history also boasts murderous regimes led by a-religious men, including Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, three examples responsible for countless millions of deaths.
Faith … in Internet communities?
So with all that as a backdrop, perhaps it makes sense that the “Nones” are multiplying. In fact, the bigger question might be, “Why would anyone turn to religion anymore?”
I will humbly suggest an answer. It begins with the fact that religion, and faith, is not what others do in the name of it, but what it does to you.
Religions, the major ones, anyhow, weren’t birthed to ruin the world, but to understand it. Sure, there are many who warp their faith for personal gain or destruction. But there are far more who use it as a guide: to behave better to one another, to commit to acts of charity, to find a moral compass, and to recognize a higher power than politics, advertising, entertainment or social media.
In fact, some believe social media has been an impetus for people dropping religion. “The ease of access to the Internet helped build communities where they didn’t feel alone,” Nick Fish, the president of American Atheists, told CNN.com.
Well, I feel for people who think Facebook is the same as church. Or that anyone in your Internet “community” will provide real comfort on your deathbed.
“Under His wing you will find refuge,” a psalm says. If that applies to Instagram, it’s news to me.
Is no religion really a good thing?
This is just my opinion, and I cannot declare what’s right or wrong, but I worry for people who give up on faith too quickly. And I worry for a future devoid of it. Yes, I know there is a growing trend towards “spirituality.” And a increasing number of people say, “I’m not into religion, but I’m very spiritual.”
That’s certainly not a bad thing. But what exactly are the parameters of spirituality? What are the principles? What are the rules? With no scriptural basis, no congregations or rituals, it is disconnected from tradition. And we are left to create it ourselves. Some pockets of spirituality actually refer to the “self” as the center of power and enlightenment.
That makes people feel good, but using “self” to steer your moral compass seems a precarious concept, one that can just as easily sway to “me” as to “us.” Remember, not all religious rituals are about glorifying a deity or demonizing others. Judaism has Yom Kippur, a day to ask forgiveness. Catholic wakes gather loved ones after a loss. Buddhism encourages charitable acts to the poor. Such traditions can provide a road map towards kind behavior.
Look. There’s no easy answer for this. Organized religion has much work to do, to clean up its own act and distance itself from awful things done in its name.
But before we give up on faiths that go back thousands of years — because somehow we, in the 21st century, are more intelligent and enlightened than those who came before us — let’s look around at the world we’re creating, while proudly and loudly losing our religion. Is it really an improvement? Are we really guided by better ideals?
The majority of Americans have no religious tradition. That’s the coming headline, folks, next time they measure. And if that seems hard to imagine, I wonder if a better question for that poll might be: Is it God that you are disillusioned with, or man?
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his latest best-selling book, “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven,” available online and in bookstores nationwide. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.