(Weekly Column)

A new poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that a record number of Americans (19.3%) have abandoned faith and now consider themselves unaffiliated with any particular religion. According to USA Today:

“This group called ‘Nones,’ is now the nation’s second largest category after Catholics, and outnumbers the top protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists. The shift is a significant cultural, religious and even political change…Today, the Nones have leapt from 15.3% of US adults in 2007. One in three (32%) are under age 30 and unlikely to age into claiming religion, says Pew senior researcher Greg Smith. The new study points out that today’s Millennials are more unaffiliated than any young generation ever had been when they were younger.”

If you want to understand the reasons behind this trend, take a moment to read a disturbing letter that Twin Cities Catholic Archbishop John Nienstedt sent to the mother of a gay son. In it, the holy man told the mother that her “eternal salvation” might depend on whether or not she embraced the anti-gay teachings of the Catholic Church, thus rejecting her own child.

Talk about family values!

Such a callous admonition might have worked in the past when people had little education. It may have resonated in bygone eras where gays and lesbians were invisible and easy to demonize as “the other.” It could have held sway had the Catholic Church’s credibility not been in tatters after spending more that $2.5 billion to help right the wreckage wrought by pedophile priests and their enablers.

While Nienstedt’s arrogance and cruelty stands out as particularly odious, it isn’t just Catholicism that is in decline. In a world that is increasingly more complicated, with infinite possibilities and pitfalls, as well as seemingly unlimited access to information, the idea that one faith owns absolute truth is a notion that is slowly becoming obsolete.

I, for one, believe that the 19.3% figure for “Nones” is too low. A substantial number of people only identify themselves in surveys as belonging to a particular faith for one of three reasons:

Habit: People over thirty were brought up in a world where everyone was presumed to have a religious affiliation as both a mark of faith and cultural identity. So, when asked whether they belong to a faith group, they reflexively check the box, with little thought to their own belief system or actual adherence to the religious convictions they claim. As the Nones make themselves more visible, it gives these folks a new box to check – and many of them will.

Fear: For centuries, it was dangerous for people to acknowledge their genuine beliefs. “Today, there’s no shame in saying you are an unbeliever,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler complained in USA Today. With people like Mohler losing their ability to ostracize and impose social consequences, millions of people finally have the ability to “come out” and exercise their freedom from religion.

Politics: Even today, if an ambitious person wants a successful career in politics, it is easier to fake having faith, than acknowledge being a non-believer. The result is that politicians appear significantly more devout than the general population. Once this taboo falls, which is likely to occur in the next decade, it will open the door to a more honest dialogue about the role of religion in public life. Of course, this can’t happen soon enough, with the Religious Right arduously working to demolish the separation of church and state.

Religious extremists have long claimed that the acceptance of homosexuality would bring down the fundamentalist church – and they have been proven correct, albeit not for the reasons they proffered. The downfall occurred not because gay people stopped heterosexuals from reproducing or recruited their children. Not because LGBT individuals hated families, which they had always, been a part of. Not because homosexuals despised faith – because the abundance of deeply religious gay people proves this is not true.

The fundamentalists undermined their legitimacy by worshipping homophobia long after it had been exposed as a false God. In this unholy obsession, the sacrifices left bleeding at the altar were truth and justice. When people see their own sons and daughters and friends and co-workers coming out, it creates a crisis of credibility for religious institutions. It leads to countless situations where mean-spirited men like Nienstedt demand blind, irrational obedience and say take it or leave it – and more people are now following their consciences and walking away.

I’ll conclude with this: The political coalition of the future is non-dogmatic mainstream people of faith and the Nones. In the coming decade these two groups will forge bonds and create a dynamic force that rivals the holy book literalists who today hold power disproportionate to their numbers. This will be a much-needed correction to the outmoded ideas and celebration of ignorance that is holding back our nation’s promise and progress.