New Polling Illustrates the Urgent Need for True Religious Freedom

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Religious freedom is a core American value. The First Amendment grants us the freedom to believe as we choose, with respect for the autonomy of others to do the same. As new polling reveals changes in religious identity across demographics, including a growing number of Americans who don’t profess a particular faith, our understanding of true religious freedom must adapt as well.   

New Polling Shows A Growing Share of Americans Don’t Identify with a Religious Tradition

Religious freedom includes two complementary protections – freedom of religion and freedom from religion. While our nation’s religious landscape continues to include a diversity of faiths, a growing number of Americans of all ages do not identify with any religion at all or participate in religious communal life. 

A recent poll conducted by Gallup revealed a steady decline in attendance at houses of worship, tracking with a decreasing number of Americans who profess a specific religious affiliation. Today only 47% of Americans reported that they belong to a house of worship like a church, temple, or synagogue, compared to 80% in 1999. But this shift away from institutions doesn’t directly translate to a decrease in religiosity, as many find connection through different or more informal means. In the past year alone, for instance, the COVID-19 pandemic has led communities to gather online, deepening our understanding that faith is not limited to the four walls of a building.  

At the same time, there are a growing number of Americans who don’t identity with a particular religious tradition at all. Popularly termed “the rise of the nones,” members of this group describe themselves in different ways – some as seekers or spiritual-but-not-religious as well as secular, humanist, agnostic, or atheist. Despite popular perceptions that this trend is limited to Millennials and Gen Z – and the data does show that the percentage of religious “nones” is higher among young people – researchers found similar increases among respondents of all ages. 

Both of these shifts come at a time when online resources offer pathways for Americans of all ages and backgrounds to explore new ideas outside of established religious institutions. Changes in affiliation and practice may indicate an increase in exploration, self-determination, and empowerment. An inclusive vision of religious freedom must therefore include those of all faiths and philosophies, who express their beliefs in a myriad of ways. 

Has the Pandemic Changed How We Worship?

When emergency health orders went into effect across the country, we found new ways to connect with our religious communities without endangering public health. Many, for instance, turned to virtual worship. Today’s technology calls forth an endless amount ways to connect remotely and faith communities across the globe continue to experiment with innovative alternatives like online workshops and virtual reality sessions. 

Expanding remote and COVID-safe options also opened new opportunities for engagement among community members that typically can’t participate in in-person services due to accessibility, health concerns, responsibilities, or distance. By being creative, these temporary changes demonstrated on a global scale that expressions of faith go far and beyond houses of worship. 

As we slowly begin to resume in-person religious activities, our understanding of religious freedom should be informed by the new and fruitful ways we adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Religious freedom is more than just the right to practice; it is the right to do so in a communal setting, at home, in person, remotely, and in different capacities. When we recognize the diversity in religious practices, we help ensure that our friends and neighbors  can find meaningful community and connection. 

Dynamic Change, New Possibilities

Our democracy is resilient, with the capacity to meet the needs of people of all faiths and of none. As the role of religion shifts for many Americans – be it institutional membership, attendance, or self-identification – the freedom to believe as we choose must adapt to address new and emerging issues. An inclusive vision of religious freedom protects all of us, enabling all of us to thrive.

Learn more about how Interfaith Alliance works to advance true religious freedom for all.