Americans are slowly becoming less religious, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. Of the survey’s more than 540,000 respondents, nearly one in six did not claim a religious identity.
The study estimates that about 34.2 million people categorize themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no religious preference. This group has increased from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.
“The jump in atheist, agnostic and non-religious numbers has been quite astounding to me,” said Ryan Paulson, president of the Atheist Student Alliance.
He said the group’s membership has shot up from 30 to nearly 175 members over the past couple of years.
“I never thought it would get this big,” Paulson said.
The study also found a slight increase in new religious movements, including Wicca and Scientology.
Grant Missonis of the Church of Scientology of Tampa said there has been a lot of interest in the church, mostly due to media attention.
“A lot of people have heard about Scientology,” Missonis said. “So many interested people want to find out more about it.”
The number of people who call themselves Christians has decreased. According to the study, 76 percent of Americans identified themselves as Christians in 2008, versus 86 percent in 1990. Mainline Protestant denominations have seen the biggest drop in numbers. However, non-denominational and evangelical Christian churches have slightly increased over the past few years.
Nationwide, Baptists have decreased by 3.5 percent. However, the First Baptist Church of Temple Terrance has actually seen an increase in the past year. Joseph Germain, director of international ministries, credits the tough economy for the rise in membership.
“People are looking for answers, looking for hope,” he said.
Germain said one reason for the decline in organized religion is that people are catering religion to fit their needs instead of the other way around.
“God requires certain things that people are not meeting,” he said.
Rev. Alan Weber, director of the Catholic Student Center, said one of the main problems is society’s changing attitude towards life.
“There is a big gap in values between generations,” he said.
Religious traditions and rituals are not as strong with younger generations as they are with older ones, which helps explain the growth of non-denominational churches, Weber said.
Although organized religion has been on the decline for the past two decades, it is still a fundamental need that has existed throughout history, Germain said.
“Organized religion addresses the need people have to connect with God and to be generous,” Weber said.
The decline of religion raises issues about society as a whole. Society is based in fear, Weber said, which is played up by extreme evangelicals.
Many students have heard loud and sometimes forceful preaching about the consequences of sin outside of Cooper Hall. George Poyatzis, one of the preachers, is displeased with the decline in religion and feels it is his duty to preach to the students who pass by Cooper.
“Part of being a Christian is spreading God’s word,” Poyatzis said. “I am doing God’s work.”
Thomas Stallings, president of Cornerstone Student Fellowship, said he enjoys being a part of a Christian organization on campus regardless of nationwide trends.
“The Christian fellowship has helped fill the void in my life,” he said. “I have found real fulfillment through Christianity.”