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.