You might’ve heard about the new research that came out from the Pew Forum about Christianity in America. I would obviously recommend reading the article before you read my thoughts below. I don’t necessarily want to rehash all the data for you, but I just want to comment on some of the conclusions that the data leads me to believe.
First, what is obvious from the data is that the percentage of people who identify as Christians has declined while people who identify as religiously unaffiliated has increased. This is not a new narrative. We have talked about this before on this website, and people talk about it all over the Internet. The bigger question is why this is happening. In the past, people like me have attributed a lot of this to the decline of mainstream, theologically liberal Protestant churches. It is no surprise that many of these are beginning to lose the cultural power they once had, and without very much differentiation between their culture and popular American culture, they have failed to hold onto their formerly prominent position in society. However, the revelation from this research seems to imply that it is not just mainline churches that are suffering. Move the bottom of the first page, they break down the decline of white “born-again/evangelical” Protestants versus white “non-born-again/evangelical” Protestants. Both groups are declining. White evangelicals have fallen by less (3% versus 5%), but there is something of significance there. They do not provide overall numbers regarding evangelicals and non-evangelicals without being filtered by race, but it at least seems possible, given the data we can see here in the article, that this is not just a mainline issue. It seems to be impacting evangelicals as well.
What are we then to make of this? One prevailing opinion that has been put forward many times is that it is simply more socially acceptable to identify as nonreligious today than it was 10 years ago. Looking at the trendlines, the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated continues to climb. You have to assume that this indicates that more and more people will continue to meet people who identify as religiously unaffiliated. As something becomes more common, it is easier to identify as a member of that group. For you Christians in the room, you have been there before. It is a lot easier to identify as a Christian when you’re at a Newsboys concert and they are saying “God’s Not Dead” than it is to identify as a Christian when you are talking to a group of friends who all agree that a belief in God is irrational. There is comfort in numbers, so I think we have to keep that in mind whenever we look at this phenomenon. As more news articles continue to talk about the rising proportion of the American population that identified as religiously unaffiliated, a predictable consequence of that increase in prominence is about people who might have been afraid to identify as unaffiliated before might feel more comfortable doing so now.
Advancing beyond that, there is much more growth in people identifying as having no religious affiliation as compared to either atheism or agnosticism. I don’t know that we should find this particularly surprising in our postmodern culture. As a general rule, people who identify as unaffiliated do not really seem to be embracing the strong position of atheism or even the “labeled” position of agnosticism. They are simply refusing to answer the question for lack of a better word. Consequently, we really know nothing about this religiously unaffiliated group. They don’t seem to be coming right out and saying that they reject any conception of God or that they really don’t know about the existence of God. They just don’t seem to be comfortable aligning with any type of established position. They kind of want to have complete control over their own religious definition and reject labels. This is consistent with our culture. We like to reject labels nowadays, so becoming religiously undefined is simply consistent with pretty much every other trend in our culture right now.
I would like to know the content of the beliefs of those who say they are unaffiliated because part of me guesses that they are the type of people who say that they believe in some higher power, but they are not sure who that higher power is. That seems to be the group of people missing from this equation, but in the past, these types of people probably would have identified as Christian. They would have fallen on the liberal end of the Christian spectrum, and they probably would have fallen into the camp that is sometimes been called “moral, therapeutic deism.” There is a God out there somewhere; He is a pretty good guy and makes me feel better. However, we can’t really know very much more about Him than that. Traditionally, in the United States, since Christianity was the majority position, these people would probably have identified under the umbrella of Christianity. Today they don’t do that so much. Admittedly, this is a bit of speculation on my part here, but it does seem to be consistent with some conversations I have had with people as well as the way that our American cultural conversation on religion seems to be progressing.
Moving on from this, the article makes a big deal about the political affiliation of the religiously unaffiliated as compared to Christians. Christians are much more on the right while the unaffiliated are much more on the left. I don’t think this is surprising to anyone. However, when we think about political parties and affiliations, by and large, I think that we have lost a great deal of nuance. If you are a Republican, you are supposed to buy into the entire agenda. If you are a Democrat, you’re supposed to subscribe to that ideology. Consequently, part of me wonders, and again, this is speculative, but is this religious lack of affiliation simply becoming packaged with other belief systems. In the past, Christianity kind of came prepackaged with ideologies as well. It may just be that there is a shift in what belief system is coming with other ideologies. It is more along the lines of an institutional change that has an impact down the line. This is not to say that every Republican or Democrat feels a certain way religiously, but I’m just more again suggesting that sometimes people believe they have to buy into an entire narrative to be a part of a particular group. We have seen this all or nothing dynamic on both sides of the political aisle, so if it seems that one party is conforming towards one view, maybe there is some type of package deal going on for at least some people in the party. For the record, I think it works the other way as well. Some people on the right may identify as Christian simply because they are on the right, and that is what people on the right do, at least in name if not in actual belief. That could account for the changes we are seeing here in the survey data, or at least it could account for part of them.
I cannot say that I have all of the answers in this study, but I think these are a few important considerations to keep in mind when we look at what appears to be the decline of Christianity in America. I don’t really know that we are any less Christian than we ever were. However, I would say that as a culture, perhaps we are becoming more comfortable saying that we don’t believe, so we are losing those people in the statistics who previously would just say they were Christian for lack of any better answer.