Chaplain’s Corner: Interfaith Month and religion in the United States

Valerie Bailey

The observance of religious traditions and practices is in decline, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. A 2021 study shows that 29 percent of adults in the United States are not affiliated with any religion, in comparison to 16 percent in the 2007 study. This study compares those who identify as Christians with those who identify with no religion. In 2007, 78 percent of U.S. adults identified as Christian while that number dropped to 63 percent in 2021. This downward trend in Christian identifying people has been happening for several decades. 

However, the number of American adults practicing other faiths has slightly increased — 5 percent of U.S. adults practiced faiths other than Christianity in 2007 compared to 6 percent in 2021.

Gregory A. Smith, who wrote about these survey results, also made an interesting observation. Smith wrote that the nones (no religious affiliation) are catching up with Christian-identifying U.S. adults. Smith said in 2007 that Christians outnumbered “nones” five-to-one. However, by 2021, Christians were outnumbering “nones” by only two-to-one. Smith made little comment about the slight growth in other religions. Perhaps the lack of growth of other religions and the decline in Christianity may support the suggestion that the United States is secularizing and not becoming more religious. Smith began his article on the survey by saying: “The secularizing shifts evident in American society so far in the 21st century show no signs of slowing.”

Given this information, I have two questions: Is this survey simply about secularization? Or could this survey be used to show a rise in religious pluralism?

The truth is, the survey focuses on the decline of Christianity and uses this decline to show an increase in secularism. But I am very interested in that one percent rise in the practice of other religions, and I wonder if this one percent rise is a sign of increased pluralism. 

Pluralism is a term from political philosophy that describes a setting where a diverse community whose people identify with unique aspects continue to live together while maintaining unique traditions and interests.

What I find more interesting than the decline of Christianity is how there may be an increase in different spiritual expressions and religions. What if our growing multiculturalism also includes an increase in pluralism? I wonder if the decline in Christian identifying people is more about increasing diversity than increasing secularism. 

Years ago, before I came to the College, the Chaplain’s Office shifted its focus from just a few specific religious communities to the care of the entire College community, regardless of relationship to faith. This approach does two things —­  supports people within a growing secular society while expanding its care to include emerging religions. We are also, however, involved in conversations that are both about specific religions and about where we find meaning through other communities now available as a result of our intentional pursuit of equitable and diverse spaces.

Giving space for reflection and exploration for all people, regardless of faith or no faith, is what is behind April as Interfaith Month.  April is a time when numerous religious communities and faith traditions observe major holidays — all during the same time period. 

This month includes the Muslim observances of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, the Jewish observances of Passover (Pesach) and Yom HaSho’ah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), the Christian observance of Holy Week (Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday), the Sikh observance of Vaisakhi, the Jain observance of Mahavir Jayanti, and the Bahá’í observance of Ridván (the first 1st day) of Most Great Festival. A comprehensive list may be found on the Chaplain’s Office website. There are many opportunities to explore other faith traditions, and you may find a schedule on our website. The campus community is invited to these observances and celebrations. This is an opportunity to practice your faith tradition or visit a tradition as a guest and visitor. These kinds of encounters may help us all better understand each other as we continue to explore how we at Williams can aspire to being a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community as we wait for the next survey about the changes in the role of religion in the United States. 

Rev. Valerie Bailey Fischer is Chaplain to the College and the Protestant  Chaplain.