A new study released this week found an astonishing drop off in the experience of active religious live around the world, as more and more people describe themselves as non-religious or outright atheist.
The report is drawing particular attention in Ireland, once a bastion of Roman Catholic culture, where now only 47% of people describe themselves as disconnected from a faith-based life.
The Irish Examiner newspaper connected the shift to the clergy scandal:
Fr Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests said the numbers of religious had likely declined due to increased prosperity, education, greater independence, and the handling of child abuse complaints.
Kieran O’Connor, a sociologist at University College Cork, said the rapid distancing from religion was a direct response to the cover-up of abuse in the Catholic Church.
“Six years ago, we were affluent and educated. That change has not just materialised recently. So the Church’s handling of the abuse crisis has clearly affected our views of religion.”
But it’s not just Ireland, or Roman Catholics, who are seeing a massive transformation in the way people view and experience religion.
According to the survey, which you can read in full here, the average decline in the number of people describing themselves as religious over the last seven years was 9%. That’s a remarkable change.
In the US, meanwhile, the decline was 13%.
Taken in isolation, this survey might be see as an outlier, but a wide range of studies suggest that the young, the well-educated and the affluent are increasingly turning away from organized religion. This from the National Catholic Reporter.
It is no secret that Christianity is in decline in the West. A Newsweek cover story in March 2009 reported that 86 percent of the U.S. population self-identified as Christians in 1990.
By 2009, the percentage dropped to 76 percent, while the number who claimed “no religion” doubled to 16 percent in that same period. Among those under the age of 30, the figure declaring “no religion” was close to 30 percent.
If the trend continues, the “no religion” plus the “non-Christian” categories will outnumber Christians by the year 2042.
I have grappled repeatedly with the notion that a decline in religiosity equals a decline in moral or cultural values, as argued by many within the US Christian community.
But even if you don’t share a view that this shift is somehow dire or dangerous, it is remarkable nonetheless.
A centerpiece of human civilization for thousands of years — the conviction that a higher power influences and judges our actions — seems to be moving to the margins of our collective lives with astonishing speed.
That has implications for everything from the way our charities work to the way our big political parties organize their messages and their platforms.
But heated rhetoric aside, the big takeaway here is not that faith has been pushed out of public life. It’s that more and more of our neighbors are choosing to leave faith out of their personal lives as well.
So here are my questions to you: Do you see a hollowing out of your church? Fewer people in the pews? What does this decline in religious activity mean?
And if you’re one of the people who have stepped away from active faith, is there a way that organized churches could draw you back?