A metro-area atheist said he encourages his fellow atheists and Protestants and Catholics to see a rapidly growing number of nonreligious as a “mission field.”
That was the viewpoint of Damion Reinhardt, treasurer of Oklahoma Atheists, when asked to share his comments about a Pew Research Center report released Tuesday.
The report, conducted by the center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, shows that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is rapidly growing. At the same time, the Protestant share of the population has shrunk, it shows.
In 2007, 53 percent of adults in Pew Research Center surveys described themselves as Protestants. In multiple surveys conducted in the first half of 2012, fewer than half of American adults said they are Protestant (48 percent). This marks the first time in Pew Research Center surveys that the Protestant share of the population has dipped significantly below 50 percent.
Reinhardt, of Edmond, said atheists, Protestants and Catholics should not see the number of “Nones” — as the Pew report described the religiously unaffiliated — as a threat.
Several Oklahoma Protestant leaders said they don't feel threatened nor were they shocked at the report's findings.
The Rev. Anthony Jordan, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said the report's statistics say more about the church than the nation.
“Liberal Protestantism sadly has exchanged the truth of the Bible for question marks, repentance of sin for social activism, and the Gospel for political correctness, which produces nothing. Far too many evangelical churches and Christians have become self-absorbed, substituting a Sunday morning experience for a living faith,” Jordan said.
The Rev. Robert Hayes Jr., bishop of the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, said the report “demonstrates where we've come as far as believers. That just goes to show you the distance the Church as to make up.”
He said going to church was an important part of American life over several decades after World War II.
“I jokingly tell people that I was in college before I found out that people had a choice about whether or not they would go to church,” he said.
Hayes said society has changed drastically, most notably since the 1960s and 1970s. He said department stores no longer close on Sundays, and many sports events are that day. Churches don't seem to speak the language of today's generation.
“This generation is looking for something more, something much more real, much more tangible and much more meaningful than these little Bible phrases that we give out,” he said. He said they are skeptical of people who say one thing and do another, and the church has to do better at practicing what it preaches.
Hayes and Jordan said they remain optimistic about the Church's future and its ability to eventually connect with those with no religious affinity.
“The church has been here before. The answer lies in the Church itself,” Jordan said. “A spiritual awakening that brings cleansing and renewal to the church will unleash the life-changing Gospel message. Only then will we see a transformation of the church and culture.”
Hayes said, “God is using us in a strategic moment like this. We have to know how to speak to a generation of people who are more interested in something other than religion right now.”
Hayes aid he thinks the growing number of people with no religious affinity is like a “pendulum swing,” and a majority of people will again recognize their need for the Lord.
“There will be a time in our lives when we as a nation will be brought back to God,” he said, adding that the Church will need to unite across denominational and movement lines to reach people who do not know the Lord.
Meanwhile, Reinhardt said the Pew report's findings indicate more and more people are meeting their need for community through social media and in places other than church.
“I would say that more people are willing to go it alone. We still value our connections with family and friends, but that connection is not mitigated by a church or synagogue,” he said.
Reinhardt said the report's findings also can be linked to the fact that America is more diverse than ever in terms of faith communities, and there is a lowering of the taboos against not associating with a church or letting others know about one's atheism.
Red McCall, president of Oklahoma Atheists, like Reinhardt, said atheists and believers have an interest in the so-called “Nones.”
“We both really care about what the answer is to the question of whether there is a God or not. We do have that in common in that we care about what that answer is,” he said.
McCall said the growing secularism is something atheists in Oklahoma are pleased about because they are striving for a pro-secular environment in government.
“We're not anti-religious, we're just pro-secular,” he said.
Other report findings
In the past five years, the religiously unaffiliated has increased from just more than 15 percent to just less than 20 percent of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics, as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation.
This growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.
The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. A third of adults younger than 30 have no religious affiliation (32 percent) compared with one in 10 among those who are 65 and older (9 percent). Young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations at a similar stage in their lives.