Have you followed the recent revelations and discussions concerning the decline of Christianity in America? It began with a report from the Pew Research Center showing a decline in the share of American adults claiming to be Christians compared to seven years earlier. Many commenters see it as pretty disastrous.
Rod Dreher in The American Conservative wrote a spate of alarmed columns crying havoc. Many others have weighed in including Baptist pastor and blogger Russell Moore, and Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week. Mike Bell at Internet Monk provided a good explainer post.
Now certainly the report is concerning. If you believe the Christian message, it means fewer people being saved by grace. If you look at it self-interestedly, it means fewer people at your church writing checks to pay the pastor’s salary. If you take a social perspective, it means fewer Christian voters and less power in the polls. It also means fewer Christian volunteers staffing Christian social programs. And fewer Christian merchants providing good service at a fair price to all customers. And fewer Christian artists producing music, literature and visual art of the outstanding aesthetic quality the world expects of the tradition that produced John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Johann Sebastian Bach and Thomas Kincaid. (Sorry.)
I guess time will tell how many fewer masterpieces will be forthcoming. In the meantime, it is worth pondering the change itself rather than jumping immediately to the consequences.
We need to avoid wrong inferences based on wrong statements. The following absurdity appears in an otherwise thoughtful blog: “the number of Americans who identify as Christians has reached an all-time low.”
Well, no it hasn’t. The number of Americans who identify as Christian is still much higher than it was in, say, 1622. All the Pew report says is that a smaller share of American adults claimed to be Christians in 2014 than did in 2007. There are still tens of millions of Christians in America.
[The Pew report presents its number in percentages, and that causes some uncertainty. Is the reported 18% drop a change from the 2007 base or is it measured against the 2014 total? The population grew by nearly 18 million people in those seven years so the before and afters are not directly comparable. I think Pew will release the raw data sometime soon and then analysts will be able to describe the changes more accurately.]
Another, more subtle error would be to sum up all the losses to the several Christian denominations and equate that sum to the total loss to Christianity. That doesn’t work because most of the losses of each particular denomination is a gain by another Christian denomination. Look again at Mike Bell’s chart (Click the link for a full size display and read the narrative):
The Pew report states correctly that, “Christianity as a whole loses more adherents than it gains via religious switching. Overall, there are more than four former Christians for every convert to Christianity.” Catholicism has clearly lost its former share. But most of the people who left that church moved to another Christian denomination. And the same thing can be said of Evangelicals and Mainline denominations. Most of the people who left a Christian denomination moved to another Christian denomination. Of all the people who left their former church, a minority shifted to non-belief. Meanwhile, half of the people who were raised without faith have become religious in adulthood.
The Pew data show that 18% of American adults have shifted away from Christianity since childhood. But 48.8% of US adults have left the religion of their childhood. The 18% that has shifted to non belief is about one in three. Two out of three have stayed within Christianity.
I’m not offering that as good news. I’m trying to suggest that the problems of contemporary Christianity are larger. The short-term trend is away from religion in general and Christianity in particular. The bigger rule, though, is a rejection of what one knew as a child — or even a frew years ago.
I sat in a meeting a few nights ago where forms of worship were being discussed. A 67-year-old man spoke gravely of the “dark time” his generation lived through and their determination to preserve the “gains” he feels they achieved. A 20-something woman later said, “My generation – the millennials – prefers the more tradition forms, which feel more genuine to us than what the church is doing now.”
They are moving in opposite directions. But they both reject (more or less fervently) aspects of the church they know. And I think the Pew report needs to be considered in terms of this massive discontent within each denomination, as well as the more obvious net shift away from the faith.
The Pew report shows that Catholicism and the Mainline Protestant denominations had the largest losses. We read that and infer they are somehow worse than the others. But what if their losses were simply proportional to their size at the beginning of the change? If that were the case, then a plot of the losses in various denominations would appear as an inverse (downward–sloping) correlation. Those that were small at the start would lose small amounts and those that were large at the beginning would have greater losses. And that is what the data show:
The purple dot is Catholicism. It was the largest denomination and it lost the most adherents. The blue and red dots are Evangelicals and Mainline Protestant denominations. They were a bit smaller, and they lost somewhat fewer people. The grey dot? That is atheists and agnostics. The fact that the grey dot lies close to the black diagonal line means the outflow from the non-believers camp was just about proportional to the outflow from the Christian groups.
So the general principle is perhaps that contemporary Americans move from one religious stance to another. The Pew study of change between 2007 and 2014 catches the population at a time when Christian affiliation was pretty high, so inevitably the shift away from Christian affiliation was proportionately great.
The above chart shows only the outflow from each group. But a big part of the story is where people went after they left one denomination. This chart shows the net change — the combination of leavers and new arrivals to each of the religious stances depicted. And the gray dot representing non-belief rises way above the line.
The conclusion I draw from this is that the best way for individual Christian churches, and for large Christian denominations, to stem the rise of atheism is to treat the people they’ve got better. They ought to listen to people more; ask for money less; speak out against the most brazen, self-aggrandizing purveyors of faith / prosperity; serve the poor to their own detriment.
The one distinct claim that is most commonly expressed, but is least sustainable for long, is that only this church gets doctrine right. The truth is that most churches are about as right as most others. There certainly are false doctrines, but salvation is by the doctrines that nearly all churches share — what CS Lewis called Mere Christianity. If churches and denominations would stop driving people away, whether by meanness or stupidity, Christianity would do fine.
I’ll give the last affirming word to writer David Foster Wallace, who spoke the following words at a college graduation ceremony in 2005, assuring students that worship and belief are the natural, and almost inevitable, human norms:.
In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.