This week, the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut was released. Regions are seeing religious shifts – the Northeast is losing its religious population, while the South is gaining. Clearly, this is due to migration within the country, as well as the more typically religious Hispanic population increasing in numbers in the South. But there has been an overall decline in those who identify with a particular religion. This systemic change can be explained by several factors. Scandals involving sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic church have driven away members. Zealous politicization of the religious right may have hurt their membership in some quarters, while the growth of megachurches has helped it in others.
Although only 1.6% of Americans self-identify as atheist or agnostic, the number who say they do not profess a belief in a higher power, or that “believe in a higher power but not a personal God” is at a combined rate of 24%. This was the only category that increased in every state, perhaps the study’s most significant finding. Why is this the case? In an interview with CNN, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League “said he thinks a radical shift towards individualism over the last quarter-century has a lot to do it.” Does Donohue provide the greatest explanation for this radical change? Perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of a majority shift to a more neo-Durkheimian state of conscience collective, where secular ceremonies (such as the recent election of Barack Obama, who acknowledged unbelievers for the first time in an inaugural address) are replacing the need for specifically religious events. What’s more, everyone can participate, regardless of faith or lack thereof.