Yesterday the Pew Religion and Public Life organization released results of a survey showing that the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has dropped quite a bit since 2007, from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. As has been reported in previous surveys, most of this change has come from a decrease in the ranks of “mainline” Protestants and Catholics and an increase in “nones,” or people with no religious affiliation. This is a trend that’s been going on for a few decades. There also has been a 1.2 percent increase in non-Christian religions and a 1.5 percent increase in self-identified atheists.
The percentage of evangelicals has dropped by less than one percentage point, however, while their numbers have actually gone up a tad. So, while the percentage of Americans who are Christian is shrinking, the remaining “pool” of Christians is more conservative. IMO this is not a healthy development.
Christianity Today argues, perhaps with justification, that “nominal” Christians — people who really aren’t religious but self-identify as “Christian” if asked — are now the “nones,” and the percentage of “convictional” Christians remains the same. Nothing has changed, CT says. However, this doesn’t explain why there’s been such a hemorrhage from the older Protestant denominations but not so much from evangelicalism. The author also admits that even evangelicalism is losing ground.
On the other hand, I’ve seen commentary from atheists crowing about the triumph of atheism. They want to claim the “nones,” or most of ‘em anyway, as their own. But Pew has said of “nones,”
… the unaffiliated are not wholly secular. Substantial portions of the unaffiliated – particularly among those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” – say they believe in God or a universal spirit. … The unaffiliated are about as likely as others in the general public to believe in reincarnation, astrology and the evil eye. And they are only slightly more likely to believe in yoga as a spiritual practice and in spiritual energy located in physical things such as mountains, trees and crystals.
The picture of the “nones” presented by Pew shows that they just aren’t keenly interested in religion, one way or another, and haven’t given it much thought, but are about as likely to believe in ghosts or homeopathy as anyone else. Atheists who are now celebrating the dawn of the New Age of Reason are being a tad premature.
And here I could insert something about whether disinterest in religion really is the same thing as atheism. An atheist is one who has decided there is no God, although he may pay lip service to having an open mind about it if “evidence” should emerge. My sense of things is that a “none” might think there could be a God someplace but that God just isn’t a big concern.
The other question raised by the survey results is the extent to which the rise of the Religious Right is causing the decline of Christianity overall. Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has been arguing for years that if fundamentalists are allowed to define Christianity and determine how the Bible is interpreted, it will eventually cause intelligent people to desert Christianity. And, according to Pew, the “nones” on average are better educated than the “remains.”
IMO Christianity has an image problem. For the past few decades, lazy or clueless media outlets, television producers in particular, have allowed only right-wing Christians to speak for Christianity in mass media. Much of this goes back to the 1970s and 1980s. Political operatives like Paul Weyrich recruited right-wing ministers like Jerry Falwell to help promote conservative causes. And the Right actively promoted its stable of “approved” Christian spokespeople to the television producers, so that when some talk show needed a guest to present the “Christian” or “religious” perspective, someone like Falwell would get the call.
This was never more obvious than during the Terri Sciavo circus, when it seemed all the bobblehead programs on all the networks exclusively booked right-wing Christian ministers to speak for “religion.” Per mass media, “religion” was opposed to taking Sciavo off life support.
But religion did not speak with one voice on this issue. Ministers, rabbis, theologians, etc., could have argued on well-founded religious grounds that removing the feeding tube was the moral thing to do, under the circumstances. And, in fact, many members of the clergy said this publicly. But from what I saw the television producers simply didn’t ask not-fundamentalist religious people into the studios.
It’s hardly surprising that Christianity is losing support, when its most visible public representatives are the likes of Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, and the Duck Dynasty guy.
It will be interesting to see if the popularity of Pope Francis bolsters American Catholicism. Long-term, we ought to be able to look forward to a more secular society. It’s also possible that major shifts in religious institutions could eventually lead to a kind of New Reformation; the old order will break up and be replaced by something else — hopefully something less stupid.