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Survey: Maine One of Least Religious States in the Nation
10/12/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

By the numbers, Maine continues to be one of the least religious states, in a nation increasingly filled with those who claim to have no religious affiliation. The rise of the so-called "nones" in America is documented in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life. Not surprisingly, as Pew finds, it's an ongoing trend that's being driven by young people. One in three adults under the age of thirty now say they don't belong to a particular denomination or sect. But as Jay Field reports, clergy, scholars and the faithful have different views on how this trend is affecting religious life in Maine.

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Ross April and Kayla Stover are shooting a game of eight ball inside the student center at Husson University. The two friends swap a pool que back and forth, as they remember the religious families they grew up in.

"Very Christian," says April. "A lot of my family is Protestant, a lot of my family is Catholic - pissed off both sides equally when my parents got married."

"My grandfather is a Pentecostal preacher," Stover says. "So I was 'church every week.'"

Now, though, neither of these college students want much to do with church or organized religion. For a long time, Stover felt like she didn't have a choice.

"It was almost shoved down my throat my whole life," she says. "You know, they always told me, 'If you believe in God and Jesus and accept him as your savior, then nothing bad is going to happen. I did that and bad stuff still "happened." Stover says she's become the least religious person in her family.

April says he's spiritual, but not religious. He says there's a big difference.

"Religion is a set, specific series of rules based around stories and beliefs that are held back when people barely knew how to write," he says. "I'm not trying to put down, very specifically, Christianity, but it's what I know the most about. And a book begins with a snake giving an apple to some lady and ends with four-headed beast? And that's fact? I consider myself sort of a humble agnostic."

April and Stover, it turns out, are not alone in their ambivalence. One in three adults under the age of 30 is religiously unaffiliated, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life. Cary Funk is a senior researcher at Pew.

"The majority of the unaffiliated today will have grown up in a household with a religious affiliation. So that means that most of the unaffiliated today have had to change in some way, they've had to switch to having no religious affiliation at some point," Funk says.

So why are young people like Kayla Stover and Ross April making this switch? Funk says there isn't one answer. "There are things about the theology and dogma of a particular religion. There's also people's beliefs and preceptions about religious organizations."

In the Pew survey, 70 percent of unaffiliated people, for example, said churches focus too much on money and power, while 67 percent said they're too involved with politics. Not surprisingly, Pew also finds that the growing numbers of unaffiliated people rarely, if ever, attend church.

"We are no longer at a point where we can deny what is obvious," says Dr. Robert Grove-Markwood, president of the Bangor Theological Seminary. "Most of the congregations of mainline, Protestant, traditional kinds of churches - they're shrinking."

Grove-Markwood says it's a big reason why the Bangor Theological Seminary is suspending all classes at the end of the current academic year in May.

"Bangor Seminary is part of an ecosystem," he says. "Smaller churches in Maine are these little churches that used to be bigger - and used to be able to afford a full-time minister - are finding themselves increasingly unable to afford to pay someone who's gone to three years of graduate school."

Maine has long been one of the least religious states in the nation. Researchers have been studying the spread of secularism in Western Europe for years now. But Professor Kyriacos Markides says that's not what's happening in Maine and across the U.S.

Markides teaches the Sociology of Religion at the University of Maine at Orono.

"People from other traditions come together and compare notes. We do not live in isolated enclaves of religious communities," he says. "We may have a neighbor who is from a radically different religion from our own. And we have conversation. This unavoidably leads to the weakening of the total monopolization of religious experience from the traditional religions."

Markides says Maine and the rest of the country are becoming much more religiously pluralistic, not secular. It's a trend that's easy to see, as you drive through the suburbs of many American cities. Recent census data show that the number of evangelical christians in the nation's nine largest metropolitan areas went up by 12 percent over the past decade.


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