By MARK PENN with E. KINNEY ZALESNE
From The Wall Street Journal Microtrends Column
Published December 17, 2009
This is the season for traditions: chestnuts roasting on an open fire, carolers on the doorstep, and the endless argument about the secularization of Christmas. This isn’t the usual complaining about the toy and greeting card companies commercializing the holidays, but a much broader trend involving the secularization of religion around the country.
We are still a nation whose coins say “In God We Trust,” where most witnesses in U.S. courts swear “so help me God,” and where our school kids pledge allegiance to “one nation, under God, indivisible.”
But God, as we have traditionally known Him, is evolving for more and more worshippers. Belief in the God revered by most mainstream religions — a highly specific, paternalistic deity with an agreed-upon history and behaviors — is on the decline.
According to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, only 76% of Americans identify as Christians, down from 86% in 1990. But interestingly, while non-Christians are not choosing Islam or Judaism, neither are they choosing atheism. A poll done by Gallup in 2008 found that 15% of Americans – up from 8% in 1999– say they don’t believe in God, but they do believe in a “Higher Power” or “Universal Spirit.” More and more, Americans believe that the world was created by a spiritual being, but they reject the Torah, the Koran and the New Testament as the explanation for it.
These universal-spirit worshippers, or what we call Religious Independents, are defining a secular Third Way in religion. They are like political independents who vote but refuse to affiliate with a party. Consequently, attendance at Christmas mass may be declining, but celebration of Christmas and the holidays remains as high as ever. Paradoxically, overall belief in a God is rising, while participation in organized religion is declining.