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Losing Religion in America

As many of you know, there was a major poll done recently by the Pew Research Center involving religion in America.  The results were published about three weeks ago, and the findings were striking indeed.   Among the most intriguing were that the percentage of people identifying themselves as Christian in the U.S. has declined by nearly 8% in just seven years.  That corresponds to those who consider themselves not “religiously affiliated” in any way, which, for the purposes of this poll, meant they were atheist, agnostic, or basically no religion at all.  This category is up nearly 7%.   Here are the findings in the salient paragraph, drawn from the full account at http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

The major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.

I find these numbers surprising and strange.  I had the impression – false, as it turns out — that conservative Christianity was gaining in adherents.  Now, it’s true, that most of the losses from the Christian ranks have been among the Catholics (who now are fewer than the unaffiliated) and the mainline Christian denominations (which would include such things as Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and so on).  But evangelical Christians have dropped as well.

Whatever one makes of this, it is very interesting indeed.  The cultural wars are clearly having their effect.

For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of these findings is how they are being discussed among evangelicals.  Let me say, up front, that I do not have any statistical analysis to present.   But the anecdotal evidence that I’ve had access to (i.e., people I’ve heard talking about it!) has made me scratch my head.   The evangelicals I know who have said something about the poll have indicated that it shows that “nominal Christians” are caving in and admitting they aren’t really committed Christians.

In other words, it is not committed (that is, resolutely evangelical) Christians who are leaving the faith, but only those with a foot out the door already, who probably were never really Christian in the first place.

When I first heard this view expressed, I was amused and a bit perplexed, as it made me wonder if these evangelicals were simply not willing or able to stare reality in the face.   Many evangelicals are convinced that if you are a committed evangelical Christian, you have the truth, you have the answers to life and death, you have all you would ever possibly need – and so of course you would never leave the faith.  If anyone leaves the faith, therefore, they must not really have been committed in the first place.

If someone who is committed leaves the faith, well, they were just a wolf in lamb’s clothing.   They couldn’t have been committed.   They must have been a “nominal” Christian (that is, Christian in name only, not in true conviction).  Right?  Right!

I won’t here go into detail with theories of cognitive dissonance, but if you know what that is, you can probably see it at work here.  If reality is dissonant with what one firmly thinks (one’s cognition), then something has to give: either one changes her or his mind (which *sometimes* happens) or reality has to be transposed into an unrealistic key (which happens a lot).   That’s what is sometimes happening here in the evangelical response to the data (at least as I have heard it):  people aren’t *really* leaving the faith.   It can’t work that way.

One of the reasons I find this so interesting is because of all the email I get, and have been getting, several times a week, for years now, email from people who actually were committed, hard-core Christians – either Bible-believing evangelicals, or sincerely devoted Catholics, or something else – who over time began to have doubts about their faith.   These emails are rarely from nominal Christians.

Sometimes the doubts are because they’ve come to realize that the views of the faith simply do not pass muster for them any longer – when they realize, for example, that the Bible is not inerrant, or that the Catholic church is highly problematic for all sorts of ethical and theological issues.  Sometimes the doubts are because of how they’ve seen Christians behave in the world, both individually toward others and collectively in their social stands.   Sometimes the doubts come because of personal suffering which cannot be accommodated by religious belief in a good and powerful God.   Sometimes doubts come because people look around the world and, whether or not they are themselves suffering, they see what a cesspool of misery the world is for so many billions of people, and they just stop believing there is a God involved with it.  Sometimes it is a combination of all these things.

Some of my former friends among the evangelicals get upset with me for “leading people astray.”   It’s people like me – or those damn neo-atheists – who are at fault for these shifts from Christianity to “unaffiliated.”   I don’t see it that way.  In my view, no one has been led astray.  People instead have been encouraged and persuaded to think for themselves, based on knowledge that is widely available to anyone willing to look, see, and think.  (Knowledge of science; knowledge of world religions, each with distinctive views; knowledge of the Bible or the history of early Christianity; and so on).

For my part, I have long insisted and continue to insist that in fact I personally don’t care at all – not in the least – if people agree with me in my religious views.  I really don’t care.  My evangelical friends don’t believe me.  They really don’t believe me.  They can’t believe me.  They can’t believe that someone like me would have hard fought views and not want everyone to agree with him.  I suppose that’s why they’re evangelicals.  (!)

I on the other hand don’t feel that way.  My view is that everyone should be what they, on the basis of hard thought and consideration of all the information, should decide what they really think or believe.  They should not think or believe what they were told by someone — their parents, their teachers, their pastors or priests or rabbis, their Sunday school teachers, their school teachers, their friends, their lovers, or anyone else.  They should think through everything carefully themselves, and make an informed decision.

If people do that and remain or become evangelical, I’m OK with that.  So long as they don’t hurt and exploit others, especially the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.   If they remain or become Catholic, AOK.  If they remain or become Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, agnostic, atheist, or anything else, I really don’t care.  I care only that (a) they think about it and (b) they actively love others and do good to others and help others in need.

My sense is that this is becoming more of a standard view in this country.   Which is why traditional Christianity is losing people and the non-affiliated are gaining.   Whether it will continue to trend that way or not – heaven knows.

 


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    kazawolf  May 30, 2015

    Interesting. But though the initial data at the top shows Evangelicals declining, the fourth graph a few paragraphs below indicates exactly the opposite. Am I missing something?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 1, 2015

      Hmmm. I’m not sure!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  June 1, 2015

        kazawolf wrote: “Interesting. But though the initial data at the top shows Evangelicals declining, the fourth graph a few paragraphs below indicates exactly the opposite. Am I missing something?”

        They’re increasing in actual *numbers*, declining as a *share of the U.S. population*.

      • Avatar
        Kevin Nelson  June 2, 2015

        The data presented at the top refers to percentage of population. The later graph gives an estimate for the absolute number of Americans in various religious groups. The total population of the country has increased, so it is possible for evangelical Christians to have declined as a percentage even though they have increased in absolute numbers.

    • Avatar
      J.J.  June 1, 2015

      The total number of evangelicals in America is increasing (fourth graph), but the percentage of evangelicals in America is decreasing (first graph) because the US population overall is increasing at a faster rate.

    • Avatar
      samkho  June 2, 2015

      The first graph is about the % share. The other graph is about raw numbers. While the share of Evangelicals decline by 0.9%, its number actually increase by 2 million.

  2. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 30, 2015

    Great post. … I’m glad I renewed my subscription to this Blog!

  3. Avatar
    Judith  May 30, 2015

    This is powerful and has me wondering if perhaps there is something to Scott Peck’s stages of spiritual growth. Perhaps many stage- two Christians are moving on to stage three.

    The past two thousand years of worshiping Jesus might have been actually a Pre-Christian Era to be followed by a time of learning to love others as we love ourselves as Jesus taught and Dr. Ehrman mentions in this post.

    Imagine such a world..

    • Avatar
      J--B  June 6, 2015

      Reminds me a bit of Lessing’s “Erziehung des Menschengschlechts”.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  June 27, 2015

      Jesus was not a Christian: he was a Jew. What he uttered was a Jewish teaching. The Jewish version of the Golden Rule is, “do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.” So the period leading up to a hoped-for, hypothetical time when people begin living that teaching goes back more than 2,000 years. It goes all the way back to Leviticus. If you want to identify the period leading up to a time in which people began actually living according to the Golden Rule, you should perhaps call it a pre-Israelite period, not a pre-Christian period. On the other hand, many peoples have such a teaching. It wasn’t just Jesus that uttered it.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 30, 2015

    I agree with your overall views. But I do think it’s possible that more people who’ve been “nominal” Catholics – disliking the Chuch, but “going through the motions,” for fear it’s true that they’ll be punished eternally if they don’t – are seeing others’ example, and finally telling themselves it’s okay to walk away from it. (I *think* I remember correctly that when I, in my twenties, “came out” to my mother as an agnostic, she said she thought my deceased father’s private views had been close to mine.)

    And people who actually *like* the “truths” they’ve been taught to believe would naturally be less likely to reject them.

    Something I find interesting: When a priest taught my high-school class a course in Apologetics (arguments to “prove” the faith), I initially accepted those arguments. A few years later, I didn’t. But I was *glad he’d given me a methodology to use*, and I went back to Square One and realized I couldn’t be convinced there was a God.

    I’m wondering why the Aplogetics course you had at Moody didn’t affect you the same way. But I think it may have been because the priest was actually *trying to convince us students*, while your teacher was telling students – presumed to be already convinced – how to “sell” the faith to others.

  5. Avatar
    drdavid600  May 30, 2015

    I disagree on only one point. I wish everyone knew that the Bible was written by various men with the bias of their times, not by God. It would give me a better place to start in having social interaction through religion. Even liberals tend to think that there really was a Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John who miraculously wrote down dialog between Jesus and others that captured some gist of reality. No, the Jesus whom I love was a false prophet whom I follow in spirit, but not in relying on some master plan that put him on the cross.

    I can do nothing to lead people astray to be like me. I’m glad you do, even if it’s just in the name of scholarship. You need not apologize for that. Freedom is a good thing, even though it’s scary.

  6. Avatar
    madmargie  May 30, 2015

    I understand. My religious views have done an about face for thirty years. I am Community of Christ. I don’t believe half of what the church teaches but luckily, the church doesn’t require it’s membership to subscribe to any sort of set belief system . Anymore, we are encouraged to think for ourselves. I am more a subscriber to process theism.

  7. Avatar
    madmargie  May 30, 2015

    I might add though that a church my son belongs to in Phoenix is one of the mega churches and he says they have thousands of members.

  8. Avatar
    Scott  May 30, 2015

    What amazes me is that evangelicals seem perfectly okay with the fact that millions if individuals are moving farther from salvation (as they see it) instead of closer to it. Even though evangelicals are supposed to be passionate about EVANGELIZING, they instead display their true tribalism by saying good riddance to the nominals. I personally believe that this result is better for these Christians of this ilk. The fewer their number, the more they can feel embattled like the faithful remnant.

    • Avatar
      Arlyn  June 3, 2015

      Bill Moyers while interviewing an older Nun educator many years ago asked her thoughts about the struggle ahead between religion and humanism. She waved the question off as being less an issue than the upcoming struggle between religionists and outlined a battle between those who get it regarding graciousness and those who didn’t.

      Her thoughts paralleled those of the old Black Harlem Baptist preacher who coined the phrase “cheap grace” describing those who accepted God’s grace but had been ungracious to black Americans and to wit Dietrich Bonhoeffer had heard and embraced the phrase to describe German countrymen who had accepted God’s grace, but had not shown graciousness to Jews and Gypsies.

      I think the wise old Nun was prophetic in seeing it coming. The greater struggle is not between belief and disbelief, it is between the salvation and gracious based and the salvation based are holding firm to it, while the gracious based are finding other outlets that are less embarrassing and more proactively expressing the graciousness they learned from Jesus.

      I wonder if it might be correct to suggest that the gospel of Jesus is going underground, while the gospel of Paul holds the pulpit

  9. Avatar
    doug  May 30, 2015

    I wonder what effect the lgbt movement has had on religious beliefs. Scripture has not been kind to gay folks, including Lev. 20:13 – “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death”. Some say that doesn’t mean what it says; but that is what it says. Now that more straight folks know friends and relatives who are lgbt, they often follow their heart rather than scripture or religious dogma.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  June 3, 2015

      Doug: Scripture has not been kind to gay folks, including Lev. 20:13 – “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death”.

      Steefen: Scripture has not been kind to people who take Communion, including Lev. 17: 10 – “‘I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people.”

      You can see a 2 hr 45 min. presentation on the Testimonium Flavianum, Jesus, Christianity, and Lev. 17:10 by going to YouTube, doing a YouTube search on WBFbySteefen and seeing the most current video upload. Yes, it is about 3 college lectures long coming in at 2 hrs 45 min.s but it is worth it.

      • Avatar
        bobnaumann  June 12, 2015

        Actually, good Jews don’t take communion.

  10. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  May 30, 2015

    Amen! Errrrr . . . . Yes! 🙂

  11. Avatar
    drdavid600  May 30, 2015

    It is routine in the history of religion for a church or sect to believe they have the true religion, while those other people are flawed in theirs. Cults do that, but I find I do it, too, even though I only want to believe what’s true. An honest evangelical has to say I’ve fooled myself because I’ve trusted in empiricism. Maybe, but I’ll take that chance over the chance of a trickster God who only rewards blind faith. So I see my beliefs as superior, just as those with other beliefs see theirs, or they’d change those beliefs.

    I believe we were created through evolution, physically and culturally. So was our morality, physically and culturally. Our physical genetics takes generations to change, but culturally, a lifetime is enough, such as with homosexuality. Evangelicals can only belittle that change. Let’s see what happens with that.

    I predict from recent trends that in 100 years, evangelical Christianity will continue to be a significant minority, but in 500 years, it will be as rare as those who believe the Moon landings were fake. Maybe it will evolve faster than that, but people are pretty stubborn, even about Moon landings.

  12. Avatar
    Jana  May 30, 2015

    I’m unsure what “cultural wars” mean (are really having their affect) as the cause. Adding a personal anecdote, having at the age of 24 entered a Catholic Trappist monastery and now I consider myself a Buddhist/yoga practitioner (not a Christian), I’m included in the decline. My reasons are numerous and btw further cemented by what I’ve been reading in your blogs. (hope to catch up soon as internet problems should be resolved within the month).

  13. Avatar
    Tom  May 31, 2015

    Very interesting read.

    I certainly hope these people who are walking away from organized faith have a good game plan for their livelihoods ahead of them.
    Personally, I am a Unitarian and I’ve come to find that the physical act of coming together, joining in unity, and engaging in various discussions that results in either agreement or disagreement is of *great* societal value. We maintain a strong cohesive bond in our congregation and value everyone’s input – even those who happen to loose many arguments. They’re still family to.
    -But I do believe the act of ‘coming together’ is what separates the US from the rest of the world.
    My opinion.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  June 3, 2015

      I don’t get your point. Then what is the difference between a Unitarian and a member of meetup.com?

  14. Avatar
    mjordan20149  May 31, 2015

    I wonder (and I really hope!) whether people are disenchanted with the politics of Christianity in America. The “moral majority” seems to be in favor of a number of causes that can hardly be called Christian, especially if you read a number of passages in the New Testament. Maybe I’m assuming that there is more biblical literacy out there than there really is, but, even when I attended the Southern Baptist Church as a child, I have always been puzzled by the compartmentalization of social and ethical issues in the minds of many “devout,” or “committed” Evangelicals. The emphasis is always on proselytization: saving the poor (and everyone else) from the fires of damnation-I can only remember a few (white) pastors who cared about alleviating the suffering of the poor and the unfortunate. Those pastors seemed to be marginalized as a result. I think that these people are finally beginning to get what they deserve. Its not likely, but there is at least a possibility that they can learn from this trend, if it continues, as I think it will.

  15. Avatar
    Jason  May 31, 2015

    I suspect that a lot of the “stickiness” of evangelical Christianity has to do with how wrapped up in their own sense of identity it becomes for adherents. That’s why they can be part of the dominant culture of the land (ie, white anglo Saxon Protestants) and yet see themselves as persecuted. I’ve come to see their faith (or aspects of it, such as rejection of science) as analogous to the black fingernail polish worn by those immersed in the “Goth” or “Emo” cultures:they aren’t really in love with it but no one else (outside their in group) is doing it so it makes them feel special, and that much more worth hanging onto.

  16. Avatar
    mrdavidkeller  May 31, 2015

    I think one aspect of the drop is the almost weekly exposure of high profile evangelical leaders who are hypocrits, be it from the pulpit or political soap box, the age of social media shines an unyielding light that prohibits the ability to walk back or spin sin as was once possible. The recent fall of the very popular Duggar family is a good example, save for Mike Huckabee the pols and pastors couldnt distance themselves quickly enough though to little avail, in the pre digital age evangelical leaders could simply allow bad press to pass, in the age of twitter evangelicalism is defined by those who are its public persona and in the last few years the image is one of anti science, anti woman, anti gay, anti civil rights, its a wonder the drop isnt double or tripple in view of the utter backward nature of the current world view they hold.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 31, 2015

    Well, I thought you stopped your “Moody” series one blog too soon. This one, responding to the criticism about whether or not you are leading others astray, is the one that was missing. Now it’s finished. Good job!

  18. Avatar
    Judith  May 31, 2015

    Wish I could remove “…and Dr. Ehrman mentions in this post.” Is there a way to correct our comments after added?

    (You said something about loving and caring for others but not the very same thing Jesus said.)

  19. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 31, 2015

    Further thoughts… I, like you, certainly have no objection to people – in our time period – being believing Christians, Jews, Muslims, or anything else. Personally, I’m convinced theistic religions will die out before the turn of the next millennium, and the world will be better off without them. But now, they really do enrich many people’s lives.

    However, I’m troubled by our country’s permitting religious schools – where daily indoctrination, beginning at age five or younger, goes a long way toward *denying* people actual “freedom of religion.” I think all children should be in non-sectarian schools, given instructions in their parents’ religions only in once-a-week “Sunday school” or its equivalent. They shouldn’t be told “Jesus rose from the dead” by the same person who’s telling them “France is a country in Europe,” as if they’re equally undisputed facts!

    And I’m not aware of anyone, anywhere, making an issue of this. Everyone’s just glad those religious schools are saving taxpayers some money. I just have to take comfort in the fact that these surveys show more and more young people *are* deciding to think for themselves.

    • Avatar
      doug  June 1, 2015

      Good point about early religious indoctrination of children being a way of denying them (at least to some degree) their religious freedom.

  20. Avatar
    Yes  May 31, 2015

    For those who are interested, here is a good representational example of the evangelical analysis Bart refers to above, this one was published in the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today: “Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways from Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey” http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/may/nominals-to-nones-3-key-takeaways-from-pews-religious-lands.html

    But I think Bart is making too much of the emails he’s receiving from former christians, since there are plenty of people going in the other direction too. 8.4% of evangelicals eventually become non-evangelicals, but this is offset by 9.8% growth due to conversions. As FiveThirtyEight shows, when people change religions, it’s the evangelicals (and especially the nones) who are the big winners: http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/evangelical-protestants-are-the-biggest-winners-when-people-change-faiths/
    The shrinking christian population really is coming primarily from catholic and mainline traditions. Evangelicals are down too, but by a comparatively small 0.9%. The ugly part of the evangelical analysis is the distinction between “real” christians and “nominals.” If there is cognitive dissonance, it’s that in the past evangelicals have been able to claim to speak for a majority because they count non-evangelicals as christians when it suits them to do so, but discount them now when it suits them.

    The really fun part of the FiveThirtyEight piece is that they try to make some calculations about what a new equilibrium might look like based on conversion rates alone.

    Personally I’m much more interested in the generational element of this. What will second generation nones be like? Will nones be able to retain their children? Will the children of nones rebel against their parents by finding religion, and if so, what kinds of religion will be appealing? Will there be a second wave of new atheism and if so how will it be different from the current “movement”?

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