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Losing Our Religion: Doubt By Numbers

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When the Pew Research Center polled young Americans in April about the strength of their religious beliefs, as Huff Post and other media reported last week, 31 percent of respondents (almost one in three) under the age of 30 acknowledged harboring doubts about the existence of God.

That's double the number from 2007, when the Center conducted a similar poll. As CNN put it, "more young people are expressing doubts about God now than at any time since Pew started asking the question a decade ago."

As a freethinker and secular humanist, I found these numbers cheering and broadly in alignment with the dramatic growth of so-called "nones" -- Americans who say they have no religious affiliation -- whose numbers, according to Time Magazine, "have more than doubled since 1990; major surveys put them at 16% of the population."

Even so, the latest Pew poll includes other data pointing to a country sharply divided over matters of religious belief, especially regarding doubt and certainty. When asked to assess the statement "I never doubt the existence of God," for instance, 63 percent of those under 30 claimed they were in "complete agreement" and a further 17 percent said they were "mostly" so. So although CNN could still calculate that, among younger Americans, the new numbers expressing religious certainty represent a 15-point drop in five years, a dramatic decline by any measure, 63 percent of the same pool of respondents were still reporting that they had never doubted the existence of God. Perhaps less surprising, though still notable: among Americans aged 65 and older, the numbers acknowledging doubt dropped even more sharply, to just 9 percent. Additionally, 76 percent of all respondents said prayer was an important part of their lives and agreed with this statement: "We all will be called before God at the Judgment Day to answer for our sins."

In 2009, when Fox reported similar data about the rise of the "nones" and the trend away from religious affiliation, it published a panicky op-ed bearing the title, "Where Have All the Christians Gone?" "Christianity is plummeting in America," the author Bruce Feiler warned,

while the number of non-believers is skyrocketing ... The number of Christians has declined 20 percent since 1990, and is now 76 percent, the lowest percentage in American history. The growth of non-believers has come largely from men. 20 percent of men express no religious affiliation; 12% of women. Young people are fleeing faith. Nearly a quarter of Americans in their 20's profess no organized religion.

Feiler claimed that such data highlight a "rise of disaffection" among Americans rather than, say, their enlightenment, a revealing bias, but with the number of Christians in America standing at 76 percent in 2009, even after a 20 percent decline, one grasps how religious the country was in the 1990s and arguably how devout it remains.

Even with the rise of the "nones" and doubting millenials, however, one can point to notable trends (as this significant graph does), yet still not make hard-and-fast predictions about the consequences of such doubt. Not all doubt leads to atheism; some may end up sharpening religious belief, just as de-conversions don't go in one direction only. After Britain's "agnostic" 1880s, for example, when arguments about religious doubt for the first time generated a national debate about the role and effect of religion in public life, the 1890s saw a brief religious revival, even if it did little to alter the country's longer-term embrace of secularism over the 20th century.

Still, those of us committed to rigorous inquiry must welcome the doubts that younger Americans are expressing, in whatever form they occur. For too long doubt has acquired the hallmark of paralysis and stagnation when, as so much of the literature underscores, it's actually a catalyst for change and renewal. As the philosophy professor Robert Baird argued helpfully in 1980, in an essay called "The Creative Role of Doubt in Religion," "creative doubt stimulates the evaluation of beliefs." It encourages us to discard "beliefs found wanting" and to reaffirm "those found adequate ... with new vigor and life."

Baird's conclusion is worth restating, even if it will sound obvious to many: "The very fact that faith can be misplaced ... that one can take as ultimate that which is not ultimate at all, is a reflection of the logical possibility that a person may be mistaken."