John Stember

Brad May, 73, was raised in Kansas in the 1950s. His family was Lutheran and emphasized strict conformity to religious doctrine. He first started grappling with his religious beliefs in high school. Surrounded by the cultural cracks created by the Vietnam War, Brad decided to leave religion in college. He became an atheist.

“Losing my faith was not a trauma,” May said. “I just decided this was the smart rational thing to do. I looked at the evidence and said, ‘I’m leaving.’”

May, who bought a retirement home in Missoula, is the current president of the Missoula Area Secular Society (MASS), a small organization for people who want community and have left organized religion behind.

Across the United States, the religious landscape is shifting as more people become unaffiliated with organized religion. In the 1990s, 90% of Americans were Christian and only about 5% were unaffiliated. Today, 63% of Americans are Christian, and 29% are unaffiliated with a religion, according to the Pew Research Center.

In Missoula, Father Craig Hightower of St. Francis Xavier Church has watched Catholic mass attendance fall significantly since 2008. The congregation is getting older, fewer young families are attending services, and a lot of people left the Catholic Church after the Boston Globe revealed the clergy sex abuse scandal in 2002, Hightower explained.

“There are a lot of people that have quit coming that are in, you know, the 25 to 45 to 50 group. That’s the group that’s kind of falling off. And because that group is falling off, their kids have no affiliation at all because their parents aren’t coming. So, it’s a double whammy,” Hightower said.

Young people between the ages of 20 to 24 are the highest proportion of Americans unaffiliated with a religion at 45%, according to the Pew Research Center.

Kate McGinnis, area director for Young Life in Missoula, oversees local high school students and college ministry at the University of Montana. McGinnis grew up without a religion but found Christianity in her adult life.

“You’re not wrong to point out that maybe the religious landscape has changed a lot even over the past five years,” McGinnis said.

About 50 students, fewer than 1% of the University of Montana student population, participate in Young Life services and social hours each week. Half of the students attend Young Life intermittently, while the other half come for Bible study, McGinnis said.

McGinnis said she tries to create a welcoming environment where anybody can ask questions about Jesus, faith or religion. Young people are seeking deeper community, deeper relationships, and are tired of the impersonality of the internet, McGinnis explained.

“I don’t want to be afraid to tell someone what I believe, but I also don’t want to be forceful and manipulative with it,” McGinnis said.

McGinnis recalled meeting a student who would sneak out of her house during high school to attend Young Life gatherings because her parents were atheist.

“That is the weirdest thing I’ve heard in my life. Her parents were very against her going. No one from youth group was like tracking her down or anything,” McGinnis said.

John Lund, who also worked with campus ministry but now is the pastor at the University Congregational Church of Missoula, said Christianity lost a lot of credibility with the public because of what he calls its anti-science and anti-LGBTQ stances.

“If you're an environmentalist and you're concerned about climate change, for the last 30 years it's been Christians who have been the most adamant against you. So, there's this anti-science that I think goes all the way back to the Origin of Species with Darwin,” Lund said.

Lund does a lot of reckoning and reflection on Christianity’s past. As a pastor, he believes that he cannot be the center of church anymore as a straight white guy.

“You’re welcome here if you identify as Christian or not... And you’re welcome here if you’re gay, trans, bisexual, or any version of queer. Like not only welcome, but you’re going to be invited into church leadership,” Lund said.

The Missoula Area Secular Society (MASS) and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Missoula (UUFM) are both alternatives to the religious community in Missoula. However, neither organization has seen an increase in membership as the population of people unaffiliated with a religion grows.

Instead of going to church on Sunday, families take their kids to sports, spend time in nature, and increasingly turn to technology during downtime, Sarah Burns, a UUFM member said.

If these trends continue over the next 30 to 40 years, the number of people who are unaffiliated with a religion could outnumber the religious population for the first time in American history by 2060, according to Pew Research Center.