The Decline of Christianity?

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.

29 thoughts on “The Decline of Christianity?

  1. Very good points raised here. I happen to agree with Bishop Spong, and shudder when all Christians are lumped together.

  2. I’m glad you’re feeling better, maha.
    I got tired of saying “Ga-ZEN-heit” every time I thought you sneezed! 😉

    First off, all the TV news shows care about ratings, and that’s all!
    If any actual information gets through to viewers, that a bug/glitch, not a feature. So, they bring on the most opposite POV’s possible. It’ll anger both the left and the right, and drive up ratings.

    Today, many American Christians are Manichean extremists.
    Now, maybe the new Pope may make the Catholics less extreme – a welcome sight, if there ever was one – but as for the Evangelicals, I doubt they’ll “reform” and move back to a more centrist position.

    I’m an Agnostic.
    And, like I’ve said many times before, each religions founding holy books – the Bible, the Koran, etc., – describe that particular religion’s ways to reach out to God, and become a part of that spirit.
    So, I consider these books to be like a car’s owners manual.
    Each one describe a way to get to a destination:
    And like cars, every make and model will get you to your destination.
    But, instead of leaving one another alone to our individual voyages to be a part of God, we kill each other over whose owners manual is the best, to get to your destination:
    God, and Heaven.

    I don’t believe, and I don’t disbelieve.
    I’ve always said, while I may or may not believe in a God, I sure as hell don’t believe in religions(s).
    Too many fundamentalist fanatics of every religions are unwilling to accept change, and instead, try to wrench the world to their Bronze Age views.

    Jesus Christ, please save us from your “Christians…”

  3. Let’s repeal the First Amendment and make Christianity the official religion of the United States. Assuming, that is, that we want to drive Christianity to extinction.

  4. So much to say on this subject. I dislike organized religion and cannot commit to any of their beliefs. That said, I do believe in a higher power(s). I like the concept of the Tao which is the unchanging aspect behind all change. And Lao-Tzu said that the Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao. That sounds like “God” to me. Carl Sagan described the Cosmos as “all that is, all that was and all that ever will be” That sounds like “God” to me. God cannot be defined by puny human minds.
    I have recently attended meetings exploring the unitive self. This is the idea that there is only one and we are all it, including the dogs, cats, trees, rocks, etc. It’s only because we live in a world defined by duality that we think differently. We have forgotten who we really are and are on the path to remembering.
    Regarding the current pope, John Hogue has written a book based on the prophecies of St. Malachi predicting this is the last pope, the Vatican will be attacked and that will be the end of the Catholic Church. Too bad, I really like Pope Francis but I do feel there are a lot of higher-ups in the church who don’t like him. I could go on but I’m hungry.

  5. “when its most visible public representatives are the likes of Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, and the Duck Dynasty guy”

    You forgot Ted Nugent!

  6. Well, I’ve matured into an atheist? I consider that a big step in my intellectual and emotional development. It took me awhile, but I finally saw the light.

    Free at last,free at last…thank God almighty I’m free at last!

  7. An 8% drop over 45 years – how much is just due to attrition – that is older church members dying and not replaced by younger members? Under that theory the shift is the generation younger than 60 (more or less) and the trend may continue for a while.

    Evangelicals have survived this trend enough to break even. I agree this is not a good thing but the popularity of Liberty University, for example, illustrates that the far right has funded and promoted their brand.

    How will this Pope affect trends? Interesting question. He’s dented the monopoly of the ultras and they don’t like it – and the press loves pitting Christians against Christians so this will get legs in the media.

  8. To me Christianity is nothing more than crowd control, they use fear to keep the rubes inline and of course filling the church coffers. Somehow I’ve made it to middle age without killing, raping, stealing, and generally just staying out of trouble without Jesus! But still according to my Christian brethren I’m doomed to an afterlife in the fiery depths of hell, makes perfect sense?

  9. uncledad – you run into two kinds of Christians – those who believe in a ministry of service and those who believe in a ministry of power. IMO, Jesus taught service. Service may be limited to the congregation or it may be expanded. Either is OK with me. For those who want to practice a ministry of power, I have no quarrel if it’s limited to the congregation that’s accepted and invited that control. My issue with ministers of ANY religion is when they want to expand power and control to people who are NOT part of their congregation.

  10. I agree with Doug. There are 2 types of Christians. It is an uncomfortable feeling to deal with those who are controlled by fear (including some members of my own family) and I have had experience with those that want to be of service and attempt to follow the practice that they understand of Jesus. Here in my little corner of the northwest is a large Adventist community. They are a little different from traditional Christians because they celebrate the sabbath on Saturday not Sunday. They are also very health conscious. However, they are also very fundamental in some ways. Not only have I come into contact with them personally but with my recent health issues found myself at their hospital. In every case, they have been gentle, loving and non-judgmental. The hospital’s mission is to share God’s love and I can say that is what I felt. They took very good care of me as opposed to my experience at the other hospital in town which incidentally is a Catholic hospital.
    I believe it is true that there are those at the “top” who want power to control what people think because that is the only way they can continue to exist. That is based on fear. Ordinary people see their faith as a comfort and we all need a source of comfort. That is based on love. Love is the opposite of fear and the only thing that can eliminate it. At the end of the day, beliefs are unimportant, it’s what’s in our hearts that matter and if we have love in our heart, we can, each one of us, work miracles. I am not an expert on the Bible but I do believe that is what Jesus said.

  11. As someone who was raised Episcopalian but married into the Lutheran Church, I have always resented the fact that the supposedly “liberal press” (ha!) never paid attention to the many progressive denominations and churches within the larger Christian community. We’ve always been there, but since we tend to practice what Doug calls a ministry of service (good phrase) instead of a ministry of power, we get overlooked.

  12. Me. Epperson,
    “Power” is sexier than “service.”

    People love a good fire-‘n-brimstone speech – even our supposedly secular MSM.
    Listening to the good works done that week, is dull in comparison.

  13. Oh, I understand *why* it happened as it did, I’m just deploring the fact. (And anyone here should feel free to call me “Jim.”) I think you are exactly right, and at the same time, you are nailing the falsity of the “liberal press.” The press is motivated by scandal, hyperbole, and conflict, rarely by ideology.

  14. Some of the drop in Christianity might be due to push back. I know in my case abortion and homosexuality were never issues that I had to confront my beliefs and understandings about. Those two issues didn’t register in my mind as something that was a moral imperative. But when Christians openly pushed an agenda forcing me evaluate my understanding I came away with a view far different than what Christianity was espousing.
    I don’t have any desire to kill babies nor do I have any homosexual proclivities, but I also don’t have any desire to hunt down and persecute homosexuals or to drive women underground or into illegality for rights that belong to them by nature.
    Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying that they’ve popularized, and it goes: Live and let Live. I think Christianity on the whole would fare better if the incorporated that sentiment into their doctrine. What I’m saying is if Christians put an issue in my face I’m forced to deal with it, and it might not come out with the same understanding that was intended when it was originally pushed in my face.

  15. Swami: I know your link was intended for Gulag but since I’m nosy of course I tried it. What an experience!! I’ve never encountered anything like that before. Of course I am not exactly computer literate. I think the devil is in the details so I will have to remain ignorant as I couldn’t get it to work for me. I’m sure it is operator error as my daughter is always saying.

  16. Swami,
    Why do America’s Christians – even from waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back then – always see an angry God, and not a loving and inclusive one?
    God’s supposed to love all of his creatures – even Heathenous Agnostics like me!

    I suppose it’s the old fire-‘n-brimstone principle.
    THOSE people will go to Hell – while me and mine – you know, the good people – will go to Heaven!

  17. It’s a problem. People are turning away from Christianity, I think, because they see Christians as too judgmental, too hypocritical, too prejudiced, and too likely to want to use the law to make you be exactly like them. This is in very large part because the most judgmental, hypocritical, prejudiced portion of Christianity has dominated all the megaphones and microphones all over the country by being aggressively political. Many of us who are NOT any of that (Episcopalian and proud here!!) are frankly embarrassed by this.

    But how to push back? By being aggressively political right back at them? That would basically turn us into nothing more than the other side of the same filthy coin they are laying claim to. By showing the world who we are by our acts? That’s more our style, but it doesn’t get us anywhere, as noted above it is not nearly sexy enough to get on the news. So how? I honestly have no idea.

    Somehow, we have to get the word out that you don’t have to be bigoted or prejudiced to be a Christian, you don’t have to worry about hell fire and damnation to be a Christian, you don’t have to stick your nose into other people’s business to be a Christian… All you have to do, all you REALLY have to do, is try and learn how to love, and try and practice that in everything you do. (of course there is more to it than that, but that is the soul and the core of it, I think)

    How do we do that without becoming what we want to fight?

  18. “How do we do that without becoming what we want to fight?” By not looking at it as a fight. Ian: the answer is in your next to last paragraph. Just by loving and practice that in everything you do. It’s that simple. Maybe not easy, but simple. There’s nothing wrong in being political as long as you stick to your truths. MLK was very political, so was Gandhi but they practiced non-violence both in words and deeds. Doug was being political when he landed his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn but he was no threat to anyone. He was simply delivering a message via the mail.

  19. I came to much the same conclusion. I think the problem is they have been mixing religion and politics. That’s why we have separation of church and state. To keep both untarnished. But the fundamentalists couldn’t resist.
    I’m much in line with grannyeagle when it comes to God. I’m one of those nones that is still highly spiritual. I don’t think God is a man or a person. I do think there is an intentional creative force though. I find areas of agreement and disagreement with all religions. I don’t see spirituality as a group effort. I think we should have no authority in those matters except our own connection and resonance with what feels true. Religion allows no adjustment or growth in that. The truth is subject to some other authority. I want the truth to be the authority not the authority to be the truth.
    I see 2 Gods in the bible. The vengeful, jealous, authoritarian God in the old testament and the loving embracing God in the new testament. A best that would make at least one of them a demigod.
    The God of my understanding does not need to be worshiped.Sought yes, worshiped no. The God of my understanding is beyond that kind of ego. There are natural laws that ultimately are self regulating. We have freewill to learn and discover how it all works.

  20. I think it has more to do with attendance at church. I have a grandniece who is 24 and she hasn’t seen the inside of church since my Mom died when she was 10. Most of her friends have never attended church on a regular basis either. Of course, why people don’t attend church any more may be a result of all of the above suggestions. However, while I grew up in the church, I stopped attending church myself. My reasons were because most churches still push women into secondary positions. My very personal reason for no longer attending church was because as each year went that I stayed single, people at any church I attended were constantly trying to get me married to a “nice Christian boy”, of course. There is just too much hypocrisy at most churches.

  21. ” People are turning away from Christianity, I think, because they see Christians as too judgmental, too hypocritical, too prejudiced, and too likely to want to use the law to make you be exactly like them.”

    That’s the fundies, or the Fetus People, not folks like me. But it is partly our fault for not speaking up (loudly enough) when Jerry Falwell et al. co-opted Christianity to serve the conservative Republican cause. That’s why, even though I am not Catholic, I have great enthusiasm for Pope Francis.

    True story: A good friend’s son grew up to become an Episcopal priest. While in seminary he visited us while my mother-in-law (who thought Mitt Romney was too liberal) was in town. She assumed that, because he was in seminary, that my young friend was conservative, but he is in fact much more to the left than I am. We declined to disabuse her for the sake of peace in the household.

  22. Maha: Last evening at my unitive self meeting, one woman made the statement that in the Buddhist beliefs, one should not interfere in events such as if one saw a child drowning one should not try to save the child because it would be interfering with its karma. I have also heard that this belief is why India has so much poverty because they believe it is karma. That doesn’t sit well with me. Can you comment on this as far as Buddhist beliefs?

    • grannyeagle — What that woman said is completely absurd. The first priority in Buddhism is to relieve the suffering of others as much as possible, and respecting life is the First Precept, so there’s no justification for not saving a child.

      Note that “karma” means “volitional action,” so a doctrine of karma is a doctrine about what happens when we willfully do things. As Buddhism understands it, karma is not a magic supernatural power or a cosmic criminal justice system, but just the natural causes and effects of our volitional action. The many religions of Asia have a lot of different doctrines of karma that don’t agree with each other, plus there are all kinds of folk beliefs about karma that can get pretty wild. What the woman said probably is a folk belief. Regarding India, Buddhism actually died out in India a few centuries ago, but it’s been making a slow comeback beginning about a century ago.

  23. Everything I might have said has been covered, and expressed better than I might have put it.

    My oldest and best friend is an Episcopal priest whom I met when I was a teenager. He was a mentor during some formative years. He is very much in the practice of following what his faith demands of him in terms of service rather than seeking power. I have a lot of respect for that. I seem to get along well with progressive Episcopalians . Katherine Jefferts Schori, along with people like Joan Chittester,( who is a Catholic nun, not an Episcopal) have done a lot to demonstrate how much Christianity can benefit from the perspectives and participation of women. If there is another Reformation coming, let’s hope that the inclusion of the “feminine” aspect of spirituality and equality of their vision is part of it.

    I know Pope Francis, has given me a more positive view of Catholicism. It’s about time someone did.


    I don’t want to display my lack of knowledge, Granny, but I think Karma is the result of our involvement in the material world, rather than the punitive, retributive nature of the world that westerner minds tend to make of it. It seems as if there is a tendency for us to project a healthy dose of our own angry god into it as we grasp at the concept.

    I think the Jains have contributed a fairly strong sense that a soul is reincarnated according to a kind of “spiritual specific gravity” as Joe Campbell put it, so that conceivably those who suffer might have brought their suffering about in some way.

    Note: By this logic, Mitt Romney would truly be a great spiritual leader.

  24. “Ordinary people see their faith as a comfort and we all need a source of comfort”

    “Ordinary people” ? Whatever works for you is fine by me, just keep your faith out of my government. This post is about the decline of Christianity, I believe the point is that it can be traced to the judgmental often homophobic attitudes of many evangelicals combined with the co-opting of your religion by the right wing. As long as we have politicians trying to insert Christianity into public policy and public figures such as the Duck Dynasty dude as it’s public face the religion will continue to decline, which is also fine by me!

  25. Whew! Thank you Maha, my faith is restored. Incidentally, this woman has done a lot of reading/studying on a lot of things religious and metaphysical. By some of her comments, I have gotten the feeling she does not really comprehend a lot of what she reads. But then, who am I to judge?
    Another reason for the decline of Christianity is that it belongs to the Piscean Age and we are now entering the Aquarian Age which is a totally different type of energy. This is something I have gotten from my readings and it makes sense to me. A lot of the “old” is being discarded to make way for the new.

    • grannyeagle — I’d like to believe that an Aquarian Age is about to begin. We could use one. 🙂

  26. Been a long long strange road here–raised Mormon, left for a decade as a Catholic (since Mormonism had no mechanism for the mystical experiences I couldn’t stop having). Fifteen years as a member of the Ethical Society, and finally home to the Quakers. But not Christian (blessedly, they don’t care much). My best Meeting was the Berkeley Meeting which was about half Buddhist. I loved the Ethical Society for its Do Good ethos, but finally missed a community that connected with All That Is.

    My father was a tremendously good man who’d decided that the Mormons were a good, safe place to raise his children. My first son is now a tremendously good man who’s decided the same for the Baptists. The other son is still a seeker, with no answers.

    I think “God” doesn’t care much for religions. But I suppose affiliation is simpler for most people than not. My family pities me for having no community to care for me; I pity them for having exchanged so much of their free will for the illusion of being right.


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