Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 20, 2009

Losing our Religion? Survey finds more saying they have no religion


TRAVERSE CITY -- Jamie Treadwell thinks there must be some kind of a higher being because science doesn't explain everything.

"Like love," the junior at Traverse City West Senior High said. "I don't know if there's a scientific reason for that."

Bill Mudget, on the other hand, thinks science can explain everything. "The most 'a-ha' moments I've ever had were when I was studying evolution," he said.

Neither Treadwell nor Mudget, a 73-year-old Elmwood Township resident and president of the Grand Traverse Area Humanists Club, consider themselves religious.

They're part of a growing trend.

A wide-ranging study on American religious life found that the percentage of Christians in the nation has declined and more people say they have no religion at all.

Fifteen percent of respondents said they had no religion, an increase from 14.2 percent in 2001 and 8.2 percent in 1990, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

The study found that the numbers of Americans with no religion rose in every state.

"No other religious bloc has kept such a pace in every state," the study's authors said.

Jamie, 16, has attended the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse in Traverse City for four years. She said her parents "tried to raise me atheist but I think there has to be some kind of a reason besides science."

Mudget was raised going to Seventh-day Adventist services on Saturdays and Methodist services on Sundays. "I questioned even in high school," he said, "and I haven't believed in God in years."

Mudget said Humanists are "the most ethical, caring, believing people I know," but they don't believe in an afterlife. "When a person is dead, they're dead. Their soul doesn't go anywhere else."

The current survey, released March 9, found traditional organized religion playing less of a role in many lives. Thirty percent of married couples did not have a religious wedding ceremony and 27 percent of respondents said they did not want a religious funeral.

Dan Jonkhoff, funeral director at Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home in Traverse City, said he has only seen a very small decrease in religious funerals, but has also seen an increase in non-Christian funerals.

"Most people want some kind of religious service," Jonkhoff said, "even if it's just a little bit."

He said there are families who don't have a regular church home who ask him for help in organizing a religious service and also families who don't have a traditional service at all, but instead gather together in a natural setting.

"Most people still have a need to have their friends and community around them," he said. "There's an old saying, 'Grief shared is grief diminished.'"

Jeanne Hannah is a family lawyer in Traverse City and also an ordained minister who performs more and more secular wedding ceremonies each year.

"People come from diverse backgrounds," she said, "and they want to integrate the meaning of those into their wedding. Sometimes it's to put the families at ease because those backgrounds are varied as well."

She said second weddings are often non-religious, but no less meaningful.

"I did one wedding where the families were blending and they had a vase with layered sand," she said. After each family member added a new layer of sand, the vase was tipped and the layers mingled with each other.

Hannah said she performs five to 10 weddings each year and gets requests for many more. Hannah grew up in a strict Lutheran family, converted to the Episcopal church in college and later was active in a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

About 12 percent of Americans believe in a higher power but not the personal God at the core of monotheistic faiths. And, since 1990, a slightly greater share of respondents -- 1.2 percent -- said they were part of new religious movements, including Scientology, Wicca and Santeria.

Nationally, Catholics remain the largest religious group, with 57 million people saying they belong to the church. The tradition gained 11 million followers since 1990, but its share of the population fell by about a percentage point to 25 percent.

Christians who aren't Catholic also are a declining segment of the country.

In 2008, Christians comprised 76 percent of U.S. adults, compared to about 77 percent in 2001 and about 86 percent in 1990. Researchers said the dwindling ranks of mainline Protestants, including Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians, largely explains the shift. Over the last seven years, mainline Protestants dropped from just over 17 percent to 12.9 percent of the population.

The report from The Program on Public Values at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., surveyed 54,461 adults in English or Spanish from February through November of last year. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.5 percentage points. The findings are part of a series of studies on American religion by the program that will later look more closely at reasons behind the trends.

The study also found signs of a growing influence of churches that either don't belong to a denomination or play down their membership in a religious group.

Respondents who called themselves "non-denominational Christian" grew from 0.1 percent in 1990 to 3.5 percent last year. Congregations that most often use the term are megachurches considered "seeker sensitive." They use rock style music and less structured prayer to attract people who don't usually attend church. Researchers also found a small increase in those who prefer being called evangelical or born-again, rather than claim membership in a denomination.

Local listings for non-denominational Christian churches are close to 20 for the five-county region surrounding Traverse City.

Bay Pointe Community Church on Secor Road in Traverse City said, in its 2008 annual report, that it doubled the number of people baptized in 2008 (101) over its 2007 figure and served 888 people in 2008, up 65 percent from 2007.

Anthony Weber, youth ministries pastor at the Church of the Living God on Birmley Road in Traverse City, said his church has grown 10 to 15 percent in the last year, but isn't as big as it was 10 years ago.

He teaches two classes at Traverse City Christian School, as well as leads "20 to 25 on a good night" in the Church of the Living God's youth group.

One of his challenges as a youth pastor is keeping kids engaged, he said. He also thinks the current generation "needs to experience things for themselves before they make up their minds."

To that end, his youth group, with kids in grades seven through 12, goes to concerts and takes mission trips, along with the weekly meetings. He and the other pastors also work to build relationships with the teenagers, finding that it's easier "to let Christian teachings and lessons flow out of those relationships."

Evangelical or born-again Americans make up 34 percent of all American adults and 45 percent of all Christians and Catholics, the study found. Researchers found that 18 percent of Catholics consider themselves born-again or evangelical, and nearly 39 percent of mainline Protestants prefer those labels. Many mainline Protestant groups are riven by conflict over how they should interpret what the Bible says about gay relationships, salvation and other issues.

The percentage of Pentecostals remained mostly steady since 1990 at 3.5 percent, a surprising finding considering the dramatic spread of the tradition worldwide. Pentecostals are known for a spirited form of Christianity that includes speaking in tongues and a belief in modern-day miracles.

Mormon numbers also held steady over the period at 1.4 percent of the population, while the number of Jews who described themselves as religiously observant continued to drop, from 1.8 percent in 1990 to 1.2 percent, or 2.7 million people, last year. Researchers plan a broader survey on people who consider themselves culturally Jewish but aren't religious.

The study found that the percentage of Americans who identified themselves as Muslim grew to 0.6 percent of the population, while growth in Eastern religions such as Buddhism slightly slowed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.