Over the last few days I read, rather hungrily, the recently released Pew Research Center’s new report on America’s changing religious landscape. The byline is sobering—Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow. I read the report while, with my wife, trying to parent our three children, ages 13, 10, and 8 (listed in order of difficulty!). As I read, their futures loomed before me, prompting more than a few questions about how they’ll find their way, how they’ll make our faith their own, and so on. I find it difficult being a parent in this increasingly complex world of ours. I wonder how much of our efforts to influence the younger generation are suffocated by the enticing, all-powerful, and all-but-omnipresent internet with its Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. I wonder whether this “holy trinity” of electronic wonder does more of the “training up” we’re charged with, than we do—no matter how sincerely we approach the task. Culture is big. Culture is powerful. Culture is unavoidable. Our culture frightens and sometimes paralyzes me, and more frequently I’ve wondered whether we (speaking as a member of the Evangelical Reformed community) can claim radical distinction from a culture which beckons in louder and brasher tones than the quieter scriptural call to pour out rather than fill up. Perhaps the 1985 USA for Africa musical hit “We are the World” has come true for us in all the wrong ways. Are we, people of faith, producing and embracing the very things we should—and honestly hope to—resist? Do the Pew trends simply reflect the inevitable consequences of our own world-entranced actions? At first glance the Pew report seems to suggest that people are leaving “our” ranks for the ranks of the world. But perhaps the distinction between these two worlds is not so sharp. And perhaps that is something we should more soberly contemplate.
The Pew report contains a plenitude of rigorously obtained representative data for the US national population. The first iteration of the report was conducted in 2007. These “Religious Landscape Studies” were designed to bridge the gap between the dearth of official government data on religion (the US Census does not ask Americans about religion), and the uneven data collected by religious bodies themselves. The study is based on a sizeable sample of 35,071 adults, interviewed by telephone. Interestingly, this latest survey was conducted in both English and Spanish. This second collection of religious data reveal a number of important trends, the foremost of which is the finding that Christians have lost ground “… not only in their relative share of the U.S. population, but also in absolute numbers.” One of the key findings revealed by the 2014 study is that while in 2007, 178 million of the 227 million US adults identified as Christians; by 2014 the somewhat larger population of 245 million adults contained only 173 million Christians. That’s a drop from 78% to 71% Christian—a net decline of around 5 million (give or take a few million due to sampling error).
An examination of subgroups in the Christian population reveals that the main drop in numbers occurred in mainline Protestantism (PC USA, United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches USA, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) with a drop from about 41 million in 2007 to 36 million in 2014. In contrast, churches in the evangelical Protestant tradition (Presbyterian Church in America, Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, and others) have grown a bit with an increase of about 2 million since 2007—a current total of about 62 million. The other big decline is among Catholics—down about 3 million adherents since 2007.
But the thing that should, perhaps, concern us more than denominational switching and shuffling, is the increase in religiously unaffiliated adults. In real numbers there has been an increase of about 19 million among their ranks—bringing their total up to approximately 56 million. That’s a huge increase, and one that, in my thinking, shows an increase in secularization, and a decrease in how people see religion as a viable way of understanding the world around us and addressing our problems. The report teases out the composition of the “nones,” indicating that this group is describing themselves in increasingly secular terms. In 2007, 36% of the nones identified their religion as “nothing in particular,” but maintained that religion was either very or somewhat important in their lives. In 2014 data, that percentage drops to 30%. And there’s a difference between a religious “none” and a religious none who has given up on religion altogether.
A couple more quick findings: 27% of men, compared with 19% of women identify as “nones,” and 24% of whites, compared with 20% of Hispanics, and 18% of blacks. This is interesting in that it suggests that those who are best integrated into and benefit most from the social structure are the least likely to affiliate with religion. This does lend a bit of credence to the idea put forth by some sociologists that religion functions as a compensator.
How might we respond to these findings? One response might be to simply see the slight gains by conservatives as evidence that “we’re” on the right track. But that, I think, would be little more than the sort of self-congratulatory bombast that fails to attract a world so desperately in need of something outside itself. Rather, this data should compel us to look a little more carefully at ourselves. We might ask the question, “What does a society look like where 71% of the adults are Christians?” Does it look like this society? Should it? Sometimes we deny the rather impressive “Christian” portion of our population saying things like, “Well, most of those so-called Christians are just ‘cultural’ Christians.” As though we, the faithful, somehow stand outside culture—that we’re not responsible for its godlessness or sinful patterns. Another response I sometimes hear from Christians in my community relates feelings of oppression—a sense that Christian freedoms are being restricted; that soon we won’t be able to worship God or speak his name in public. Maybe. But, most of what we have in our society is there because most of “our” 71% (declining or not) give it de-facto support. We decry sexual immorality, but buy our wares at Target who, at present, proudly advertise their exclusive distribution of the uncut version of Fifty Shades of Grey. We almost without question support big sports (think of the NFL and the Super Bowl), irrespective of their violence, avarice, and highly eroticized advertisements, prompting one Christian writer to label our religion Sportianity. And we clamor for the material things of this world with the best of them. Our world provides our youth little in the way of what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures”—for Christians, social markers and symbols that affirm and support the reality of the world as God would have it.
In the end, our response to this world—a world whose resistance to us should come as no surprise—requires the same response it always has. To repent, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to take the lower place alongside our Savior, and to come and die to the things of this world. For it is, I believe, when we learn to pour out, rather than fill up, that we will attract our young and our neighbors with the quiet and sincere beauty of the holiness that comes from God. And perhaps we’ll show my children, in all the right ways, that we are the world.
Click here for the full article
Matthew Vos is professor of Sociology at Covenant College located atop Lookout Mountain, Georgia. His academic interests, while eclectic, are focused on gender, sociology of sport, religion, and sociological theory. He lives a well-adjusted life with his guidance counselor wife Joan, and their three adopted children Kate (Bulgaria), Rose (China), and Alec (China). The Voses live on a small farm in North Georgia where they raise sheep. When not busy adopting children, they enjoy competitive slalom waterskiing. Matthew currently serves as president for the Association of Christians Teaching Sociology (ACTS).