The proportion of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation doubled over the last decade and now stands at 16% of the population, according to a new study on religious identity.
Only Catholics (24%) and Baptists (17%) outnumber the so-called "non-identifiers," or "nones," said the report -- "The Decline of Religious Identity in the United States" -- by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.
The nationwide survey, based on telephone interviews with more than 10,000 randomly selected people, said about one in six answered "none" or "no religion" or described themselves as secular, humanist, ethical-culturalist, agnostic or atheist.
Their ranks will continue to grow, and they'll soon outnumber Baptists, according to Gary A. Tobin, president of the institute and a coauthor of the study.
"They may believe in God," he said of the unaffiliated. "The question is: Why don't they want to be associated with some religious denomination? It's probably time for organized religion to take a look at itself and see what they should be doing differently or better to involve more people."
The Rev. Tim Osborn said the only thing about the study that surprised him was that the number of "nones" was not higher. For organized religion, surveys such as this are a "reality check" that must be heeded, Osborn said. He is pastor of Warehouse, a lively communal worship service for young people at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena that attempts to reverse such trends.
Americans younger than 35 are most likely to be nonidentifiers, and those over 65 are least likely to be unaffiliated, the study said. Residents of the West lead the nation in the proportion of those who don't identity with a religion -- 24% compared to 14% for the rest of the country except New England, which had 21%. Men are less likely to identify with a religious denomination than women, 20% to 13%.
The study also found that those raised without a religion are much more likely than others to have children who have no religion. And in mixed-religion families, children reared in both parents' religions are more likely not to choose any religion.
"When you ask the child to choose a religion, in essence, you're asking the child to choose a parent," Tobin said. "Rather than choose a religion of a parent, they'll say I am not going to choose either."
The report echoed other, similar findings. A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, released earlier this year, showed the same 16% figure of no religious affiliation. And Barna Research Group, which examines trends related to beliefs, values and attitudes, found that atheists and agnostics total 11%.
But although formal religious affiliation is declining, theologians say they have noticed an increase in a sense of spirituality in recent years.
Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said the challenge for organized religion is to overcome "a growing disquiet with institutionalized religion" among people under 35 while appealing to their spiritual searches.
That is reflected in two UCLA students. Colleen Yorke, a senior, and Max Spielberg, a junior, have no formal religious affiliation, but both consider themselves spiritual.
Yorke, who was not brought up with any religion, did attend Mass at Christmas and on special occasions. Her father has no religion and her mother was a practicing Catholic until she married. Yorke has studied Buddhism and Hinduism and is now studying the Torah informally with a rabbi.
Yorke does not believe in God, but when she is on the beach and hears the waves, smells the salt air and feels the wind on her face, she experiences a special bond with nature -- a kind "power" that reminds her: "I am so small; nature is so big."
Spielberg, who was brought up Jewish and attended Hebrew school as a child, says he believes in God. But he thinks the idea that a human being can talk to God with words is "silly, laughable."
Recently, he started to attend services conducted by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life on the UCLA campus.
"I go there because I like Rabbi Chaim and respect his ideas," Spielberg said. "I don't go to just any synagogue."
But, during services, he often finds himself having to "rewrite" communal prayers in his head so that "The God high above us" becomes "God deep inside us," he said.
Seidler-Feller says he loves interacting with bright seekers such as Spielberg who come to him. "They're questioning. They're struggling. They're sophisticated."
It's also an opportunity for the rabbi to help them connect to the community.
Hillel campus programs work in many ways to guide young Jews with no affiliation and nurture them. "We are meeting the problem head-on," said Jeff Rubin, a spokesman for Hillel's national office in Washington, D.C.
For example, Rubin said, Hillel is working with the Comedy Central television network to hold screenings of its film "The Hebrew Hammer," Jonathan Kasselman's "Jewish exploitation" comedy, on 70 campuses across North America. The movie's combination of "outrageous sensibilities" and Jewish content attracts college students who might otherwise avoid Jewish religious events on campus, he said.
The Rev. Jonathan Chute, pastor of Rolling Hills United Methodist Church in Rolling Hills, said the new survey's message is: "What used to work is not working anymore."
His church uses several vehicles to reach out to the "nones." It runs a preschool and after-school program that enables the church to build bridges to families inside and outside the congregation.
And, unlike most churches, Rolling Hills United Methodist conducts weddings and funerals for nonmembers -- another vehicle to reach those who otherwise have little or nothing to do with organized religion.
Chute said that when he welcomes families to his congregation, more often than not they have been out of the church for 5, 10, 15, even 20 years, he said. Chute said he has baptized many adults in recent years because parents who wanted to have their children baptized hadn't been baptized themselves.
What has been helpful for him as a pastor is to "try to imagine how I would behave if I were serving on a mission field far away and then try to act like that here," he said.