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The 'death' of faith may be exaggerated; believers still outnumber those who don't
Various polls and new stories make it sound as if religion in America is in its death throes. It's easy to lose sight of the reality that most people do have religious convictions. - photo by Lois M. Collins
JuDea Klaas, Christine Matte and Brian Sanchez are at different stages of their lives and thousands of miles normally separate them, but they share something each would say is crucial to his or her life: faith in God.

Klaas, 86, lives in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, and is recuperating from a stroke last year that left her quite debilitated, though she's fighting her way back. Matte, 40, lives in Prince George, British Columbia, and with her husband, Eldon, has seven kids, ages 5 to 20. And Sanchez is a 14-year-old middle-schooler from Phoenix, Arizona.

All three were among hundreds of thousands who lined fences recently in Philadelphia to get a glimpse of Pope Francis on his historic first visit to America. I also talked to folks from other religions who shared his journey and enjoyed his presence. When I talked to any of them, Catholic or not, it became clear that what they really shared was deeper than the trip itself: Each tries to live his faith; it's not something trotted out when surrounded by others who also believe.

It's easy, if you are an American, to think that faith in God is dying here. Headlines across the country recently trumpeted a Pew Research Center poll that found the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated the "nones" is growing. According to the survey, that's about one-fifth of the American public and close to a third of young adults, those under age 30.

While no one disputes those numbers, it's easy to lose sight of the reality that most Americans do have religious convictions, not all of them lived out through a house of worship. Being unaffiliated is not the same as being atheist or even agnostic, which combined are "nearly 6 percent of the U.S. public," according to Pew. Those who are neither agnostic or atheist but are not linked to a particular faith family are 14 percent of the population, it said.

David C. Dollahite, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University and co-leader of The American Families of Faith Project, gently challenged me recently for buying into the "faith is failing" story without bothering to learn the nuances of what's actually happening. For one thing, he noted, "the media in general plays up bad news."

Dollahite has looked at lots of research on the topic and doubts there's been a dramatic decrease in people's belief in God or involvement in faith. He points out that back when there was more stigma involved in not claiming a religion, there were probably a lot of people who claimed one though they were at best nominally involved in faith activities. There have always been people who were not greatly involved with a church, synagogue or mosque but didn't broadcast it. And it's also pretty well accepted that people tend to exaggerate their attendance at services. They may not claim to go if they never do, but they may say they go weekly when they actually attend twice a month.

Bottom line, it's true that people are leaving churches, especially young adults. But people are also converting to religions. The count's not clear. And many who leave will come back to some kind of faith at some point in their lives. It's more nuanced than headlines alone suggest.

Faith is more dynamic and changing than people realize. I know that from personal experience. Religious conviction can be lived in many ways and multiple settings that are hard to count.

The saddest thing is faith as a bloody battleground.

I would counter that with something that the pope said while visiting America: "I ask you to pray for me. And if you don't believe in God, still wish me well."