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Why the Sky Really Isn’t Falling on US Christianity – Part 1

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The Pew Research Center released a significant report in early October concerning the state of American religion.

As with anything done by Pew, both the research and the analysis are exemplary, the findings convincing.

I will challenge one small but important thing in the report, namely its title – but I will be arguing a great deal with the way in which it has been represented in the media.

We are seeing substantial changes in religious attitudes and beliefs, but they are just not what is being headlined.

Based on multiple reasons of definition, I honestly don’t think American religion is in trouble to anything like the extent that is suggested.

The report in question is titled “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace: An Update on America’s Changing Religious Landscape.

That “decline in Christianity” point is obviously eye-catching, and in different ways it provides the core of media reports.

The British Guardian headlined “Americans becoming less Christian as over a quarter follow no religion.”

The Wall Street Journal declares, more broadly, “Religion is on the Decline as More Adults Check ‘None’,” and you will undoubtedly see your own variants.

So, what is happening? The Pew report findings can be summarized thus:

“Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one in five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009.

“Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. …

“Just like rates of religious affiliation, rates of religious attendance also are declining. Over the last decade, the share of Americans who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month dropped by 7 percentage points, while the share who say they attend religious services less often (if at all) has risen by the same degree.”

Everything here follows naturally from earlier Pew reports, and the trends are consistent.

I argue with next to nothing in the way the researchers have done their work. So why am I quibbling? Several reasons.

One is methodological and this applies to any kind of social survey.

Just 30 years ago, pollsters could rely on a predictable share of respondents picking up their phones and agreeing to answer questions.

The whole economy of communications has since then been utterly transformed by the rise of cellphones, and the coming of caller ID.

Chances of finding representative samples have declined accordingly, and response rates are way, way down. The Pew study specifies the means it uses to correct for this problem, but problem it is.

But let us set that aside. Let me focus instead on these famous “Nones.”

Who exactly are they? Although the “none” terminology dates back to the 1960s, another Pew study published in 2012 drew intense media attention to what appeared to be a rising social trend.

Not only were the Nones abundant, but their numbers had grown sharply, from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2007 and to 20% by 2012.

Another Pew report in 2013 found that “religious ‘Nones’ – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular’ – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population.” Today, the figure is 26%.

If, in fact, we understand these people to be of “no religion” – defined as atheists or agnostics – then the United States is evidently moving to European patterns at a headlong rate.

To put it crudely, the religious content of America’s future appears to be, well, None.

But as the most recent study carefully points out, “None” does not equal no religion, or no religious belief, and you should dismiss any media report that suggests otherwise.

By any reasonable standard, in fact, American Nones are a surprisingly religious community.

In 2012, a third of the unaffiliated said that religion was very important, or somewhat important, in their lives.

“Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’ (37%), and one in five (21%) say they pray every day.”

Those proportions are, of course, higher for the sizable majority of Nones who are “nothing in particular,” rather than avowedly atheist or agnostic.

A typical “nothing in particular” None is a person who believes in God and might pray regularly, but who rejects a religious affiliation.

Given the religious breakdown of the larger population, most of the Nones come from Christian backgrounds, so that the religion that they choose not to admit belonging to is Christianity.

Quite a few seem to attend church with varying degrees of regularity.

Here is an interesting question: If someone believes in God, prays frequently, reads the Bible and regards themselves as Christian, but rejects a denominational affiliation – even something as broad as Protestant or Catholic – should they properly be counted as Christian? I would say so, unequivocally.

I would also say that this description applies to a good proportion of the Nones. And that does raise real questions about the “decline of Christianity” tag, which to me seems to be going well beyond the evidence. And don’t get me started on the idea of religion being in decline.

Think of it in terms of default faith.

A venerable joke declares that everyone in the U.S. South is a Baptist. Baptists are Baptist, of course. Catholics are really Baptist, and atheists are Baptist because the God they don’t believe in is the Baptist God.

A variant makes the very same point about Lutherans in Minnesota, and other regional examples assuredly exist.

The joke makes an excellent point about the default or residual quality of the religious belief system that underlies a formal denial of faith or denomination.

Nonreligious attitudes certainly have grown in the past two decades or so, but much of the “None” phenomenon actually involves a changing approach to self-identification, rather than an outright desertion of religion, still less of religious belief.

I am thinking here of the concept of believing and belonging, as famously framed by sociologist Grace Davie. Whenever we look at figures for any religion, we have to balance those two ideas.

You can believe and belong, you can belong without believing, or you can believe without belonging.

Most of the “nothing in particulars” are rejecting belonging, but that says nothing whatever about their believing.

Whenever we talk about religions declining – whenever we used a loaded term like secularization – we absolutely have to define what we are measuring: believing or belonging?

What has changed in recent years is that the Nones are not formally identifying even as Christian, and that fact – that denial of belonging, if not believing – requires explanation.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench blog, where Jenkins is a regular contributor. It is used with permission.

Philip Jenkins

Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and serves as co-director for the program on historical studies of religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of numerous books, including “The Great and Holy War: How WWI Became a Religious Crusade.”