Americans are significantly less religious now than 18 years ago, according to the latest American Religious Identification Survey, shedding light on significant shifts in the religious make-up of the country.
Christian Americans have decreased by more than 11 percent since 1990, and the percent of Americans who claim “no religion” has almost doubled in that time, jumping from just more than 8 percent of the population to 15 percent.
This dramatic increase slots non-religious Americans third behind Catholics (25.1 percent) and Baptists (15.8 percent).
People within the University of Minnesota community have different theories behind these dramatic changes.
Jim Laine , a religious studies professor at Macalester College who also teaches a world religions course at the University said the role religion used to play is now being taken over by political institutions.
He said there was a time when religion was taken for granted in America and was the bottom line of truth and authority. Laine said this is now how Americans treat politics.
“There’s no obvious scientific reason to say that democracy is the best form of government, but the vast majority of Americans take for granted, assume that democracy is the right way to go,” he said.
Laine said many Americans now view religion as a club, which they may or may not choose to join.
“People now feel it’s optional,” Laine said. “More people will decide that they don’t need that particular club.”
Ben Cornish, president of Campus Crusade for Christ , the largest student group on campus with 450 to 600 students attending its events, blamed certain churches and parents for the decline.
“There are a lot of churches that are not teaching the truth well,” Cornish said. “Sometimes it comes across as though being a Christian means you follow the Ten Commandments, when really being Christian means you’re trusting in Christ because he paid for your sins.”
His father was a pastor and at 12 he read Lee Strobel’s book, “The Case for Christ,” which solidified his faith.
“Scientifically, you cannot prove or disprove if God exists,” Cornish said. “I think intelligent design theory is pretty strong, but I tend to put more stock in philosophy and history.”
Cornish also said some parents are to blame for either being too restrictive or by giving too much freedom to children.
Jeff Campbell , a mechanical engineering graduate student and activities director for Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists , said he thinks because of its religious motivations, 9/11 had an impact on religion in America.
He also said President Bush’s socially conservative, religiously motivated policies are to blame.
“A component of it is reactionary, it’s seeing the lunacy of powerful people and religion and it’s a reaction,” Campbell said.
Campbell said after refusing to be confirmed in high school he never thought about religion or atheism again until his junior year of college when he saw a quote from author Sam Harris on his friend’s Facebook page.
“The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive,” the quote read.
He then bought Harris’ 2006 book, “Letter to a Christian Nation” and was an atheist before he finished reading it.
Campbell said science has offered other explanations for how the universe came to be.
“One hundred and fifty years ago it was intellectually irresponsible to be an atheist because you couldn’t explain creation,” Campbell said.
Campbell said most atheists he knows are not irresponsible, they just ask questions and expect academic answers.
“If you ask difficult questions and get honest answers, this is where you end up,” he said.
Macalester professor Laine disagrees.
“It’s not that there were things that were mysterious and now those things have been answered and therefore we don’t need religion,” Laine said. “I think we’re simply assigning to other things a kind of sacred, taken-for-granted reality that is no longer a part of organized religion.”
The college experience also leads people to question their faith, Campbell said, as the independence people find is the opposite of religion as it’s not about submission and obedience.
Karl Quickert, the campus minister at The Rock , a church geared toward young people, acknowledged college represents a fork in the road.
The Rock, which started as a church for just students and singles, is now made up of about one-fifth students and has actually seen a recent increase in student attendees. Quickert started going to The Rock , located in Uptown, ten years ago as a University student.
“Was I going to follow God or was I just going to live life for myself and follow what the world said?” Quickert recalled.
Spanish and Portuguese senior, Jordan Monson, a regular attendee of The Rock’s Friday night service, said he thinks people don’t want to be held to a moral standard and then stray from religion.
“In the end, I don’t think people want to be held accountable for the way they live their lives,” Monson said.
Quickert said he doesn’t think people can be held accountable without God.
“If there’s no moral authority in this world then we’re not really going to be held accountable to any sort of standard, morality becomes irrelevant then,” Quickert said. “Who’s going to tell me that murder is wrong?”
The church’s message is “Want God, not Religion?”
“A lot of people have felt burned or have had religion shoved down their throat growing up,” Monson said.
Art senior, Whitney Starkey is another exception to the recent trend.
Starkey, who grew up in Eden Prairie, Minn. didn’t start going to church until she was 16, and though she was raised Christian, it was more of an answer to a question, than a belief.
As the chosen United Methodist representative of her Christian high school’s graduating class, Starkey gave a speech at a Christian graduation ceremony.
On a mission trip in Puerto Rico, which followed her graduation, someone who heard her speech told her she should become a pastor, a thought she eventually embraced, as she plans on attending seminary in the fall.
She said she thinks people are less religious because religion means rules, but she feels faith is something different.
Starkey, a liberal, feels there is a common misconception about most Christians being conservative.
“[Bush] has different values than a lot of us do,” she said. “We’re not the ones walking down the street waiving a Bible yelling at people, we live out our faith by being nice to people.”
Laine said the demographics suggest this recent trend will continue in America, where less people believe in a religion.
Campbell said he thinks America will eventually elect an atheist as president.
“Civil rights was 50 years ago, look where we are now,” Campbell said. “America is waking up to the idea of atheism being okay. When we reach that tipping point then maybe a lot of these ‘non-religious’ people will have the conviction and the background knowledge to call themselves atheists.”