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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 9, 2002

29 million in U.S. claim no religion

By Cathy Lynn Grossman
USA Today

Americans almost all say that religion matters to them, yet more people than ever are opting out. Not just out of the pews. Out from under a theological roof altogether.

More than 29.4 million Americans said last year that they had no religion — more than double the number in 1990, according to the American Religious Identification Survey 2001. And at 29.4 million, that's more than Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians all added up.

People with no religion now account for 14 percent of the nation, up from 8 percent when The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, authors of the ARIS, conducted its first survey of religion in 1990. Today the range stretches from 3 percent with no religion in North Dakota to 25 percent in Washington state.

The six states with the highest percentage of people saying they have no religion are all in the Western region, with the exception of Vermont at 22 percent. (Hawai'i and Alaska were not surveyed, for reasons of cost.)

"I always think the West is leading not only the U.S., but the world, that in a sense we are the edge of history," says Donald Miller of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

But Miller can't say whether these statistics are signs of a secular America to come or merely a reconfiguration of traditional beliefs under new banners.

Neither is there a way, yet, to measure the impact of this increasingly restless spirit on society — in debates on cloning, prayer in schools, abortion or the death penalty; in public elections; or in the community roles played by churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.

Giving USA, which tracks philanthropy, says about half of all charitable dollars go to religious purposes. Sylvia Ronsvalle of empty tomb inc., in Champaign, Ill., which studies church giving, worries that if "religion doesn't teach the basic lessons of personal giving, where will people learn it?"

However, Carl Dudley of the Hartford (Conn.) Seminary's Institute for Religion Research, which issued a study last year examining the nation's 350,000 congregations, says unchurched America, for all its glorification of individuality and spiritual exploration, still puts mighty volunteer time and financial muscle into programs to help communities. Programs such as literacy training, scouting or AIDS walks "attract a lot of people who act out their faith even if they don't confess it."

"A huge number of people see volunteering for a soup kitchen or tutoring children as a religious activity," Dudley says. "This is the kind of altruism nurtured by the church but not exclusive to it."

Parents who say they have no religion say they, too, can teach their children well. But that can be pretty thin gruel for soul food, says Christian radio talk-show host Dick Staub, 53, who was born and raised in the West.

"Lots of people will tell you they are on a spiritual journey," says Staub, a regular churchgoer. "Then along comes a moment when something happens — your mother dies or your child has cancer or Sept. 11 happens — and there you are wandering around saying, 'Whatever.'

"People want help connecting, creating community and seeing God in other people. But religious institutions have been discredited, so they are trying to do it outside the churches."

A USA Today/Gallup Poll in January also finds traces of this shift away from religious identity: 50 percent of Americans call themselves religious, down from 54 percent in December 1999. But an additional 33 percent call themselves "spiritual but not religious," up from 30 percent; about 10 percent said they are neither.

Experts see people looking upward, inward, online and out-of-doors for the comfort, connection and inspiration they once sought in formal sanctuaries. Their "spirituality" is unhemmed by ritual, Scripture or theology.

"People aren't really saying, 'I have no religion.' They are saying, 'None of the above,' " says University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark, co-author of "Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion."

He sees the shift as an expression of culture, history and immigration patterns — accentuated in the Western states by waves of pioneers, refugees, entrepreneurs and restless youth.

"People who believe in God — and they do — who pray — and they do — are not secular, they are just unchurched," Stark says. "They've never been to church and, in many cases, their parents didn't go either."

Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham, shakes his head for those soloists on the spirituality frontier.

Galli, who was a pastor in Sacramento for a decade, said: "Lone-ranger spirituality is not conducive to taking us to the depths God designed us to go. It leaves out the communal dimension of faith. If you leave out the irritations, frustrations and joy that community entails, you miss something about God."

Among the majority who do claim a religious identity, some of the highest rates of growth for all Christian groups were in the umbrella categories — 12 times more people call themselves "nondenominational" since 1990 and four times more call themselves evangelical.

Sociologist Stark observes, "Most people change where they go, not whether they go to church."