There has been quite a lot already said about the results of the recent Pew poll on the religious affiliations of the American people, most of the sharp decline of the number of Americans identifying as Christians over the last decade with a corresponding increase in the number of people with no religious affiliation.
The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.
To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith.1 But 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%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus, albeit from a very low base.
Here are the charts that came with the article
There is a lot more to the article which I cannot summarize in a way to do it justice. You really ought to read the whole thing, if you haven’t already.
So, what is going on here? In the past there has often been a large number of unaffiliated young people, nominally Christian but not attending any church or being particularly religious. Generally, as these young people grow older and start families, they join a church and become more active in religion. This does not seem to be happening now. The decline in the number of Christians affects all age groups, races, levels of education, etc.
Could it be that that large numbers of American Christians are finally seeing the light? Thanks to the Internet, information about science, history and religion is more available than ever before. Religions depend on the ignorance of their adherents and it could be that more and more former Christians have been learning the truth and converting to Reason by abandoning such archaic superstitions like belief in God. That is how many atheists might interpret these findings. I am not so sure. I think something more subtle but no less momentous is occurring.
For most of its history, the United States has been a Christian nation, despite what the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State might believe. By this, I do not say that the United States was ever a theocracy or that Christianity was ever an official state religion but rather that the great majority of Americans have been at least nominally Christians and America’s politics and culture has been shaped by Christianity. Christianity has been the default option for most Americans, even those who have been largely secular. It has required initiative and perhaps even courage for most Americans to identity as anything other than Christian, especially as an atheist, and most people at most times would prefer to go with the flow. Times are changing, however. America is a more secular and diverse nation than it has been in the past and it is becoming more acceptable to not be even a nominal Christian. What we are seeing, then, is not necessarily a large scale movement of Christians abandoning their faith, but an increasing number of people who no longer feel they have to identify themselves as Christians. Indeed, considering the way Christians are often portrayed by the entertainment industry these days, as hypocritical, hate-filled, small minded prudes and bigots, it is not clear why anyone would want to be known as a Christian, particularly as a member of one of the more conservative or fundamentalist denominations that our social elite holds in such contempt.
There is an exception to this general trend that perhaps proves the hypothesis, Evangelical Protestants, which show only a very slight decline in percentage and an actual increase in numbers. This may be because Evangelicals tend to stress personal conversion more than the Mainline Protestants and the Catholics. For the Mainline Protestants and the Catholics, religion is more a part of their cultural background. You are a Catholic or Methodist because you are born into a Catholic or Methodist family. Evangelicals stress the conversion experience. Evangelicals are saved or born again, not baptized into the faith as infants. It may be that because there is more of a feeling of a break with the past, Evangelicals are more committed to their religion.
What do these trends mean for the future? This may be good for the Church. I would rather have a small church full of people who really believe than a large church with people who are only there, going through the motions, because it is expected of them. I would prefer for people to be honest about their belief, or lack of belief than be a hypocritical believer. There will be challenges for the Christian, though. We have grown up in a country in which Christianity is considered the norm and has played a dominant role in the shaping of our culture. That will be less true in the future. Already, as I have noted, there is an increasing hostility towards all forms of “politically incorrect” Christianity in our entertainment media. That will only get worse. In the past, being a Christian has been considered a good and respectable thing to be. That is already changing. More often than not, in some places, being a Christian means being an ignorant bigot. In the not too distant future, it may well be that admitting to being a Christian will be considered the same as announcing your membership in the Ku Klux Klan. I hope people are ready for this.
No matter what happens, the Church will survive. Indeed, Christianity flourishes best when it is persecuted. The United States and the West generally may not do so well. For the last fifteen hundred years, Christianity has played the major role in making the West what it is. As the influence of Christianity declines can the principles that has distinguished the West from other civilizations survive? The more militant atheists believe that a world in which religion, by which they mean chiefly a world without Christianity, is abolished will be a world which will experience a golden age of rational behavior. History and human nature suggest otherwise. Abolishing religion will not make human beings more rational. It will only cause new superstitions and cruelties to emerge. The history of the twentieth century is largely the history of substitutes for religion in the form of ultra nationalism and militant socialism. That didn’t work out so well.
- Is the U.S. a Christian Nation? (dailytwocents.com)
- Non-Religious Population Is Soaring in America (thepeoplesvoice.org)
- American Christianity Is Dead? Not So Fast. My article at CNN (christianitytoday.com)
- Authentic Christianity in America: Wheat and Chaff (americanclarion.com)