The Pew Research Center has released the results from their latest extensive survey of over 35,000 adults and America’s Changing Religious Landscape is not looking good for Christianity.
When compared to the previous landmark study seven years ago, the number of Americans who self-identify as Christian dropped a significant 8 points, from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent – the lowest saturation of Christianity in U.S. history. Conversely, those who consider themselves to be “unaffiliated” (atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular) saw a considerable rise from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent – a 41% increase since the last study!
Why the drop in Christianity? The survey itself is just raw data and I could write a book of my own speculations about the information age combined with social media, but the New York Times suggests,
“…the low levels of Christian affiliation among the young, well educated and affluent are consistent with prevailing theories for the rise of the unaffiliated, like the politicization of religion by American conservatives, a broader disengagement from all traditional institutions and labels, the combination of delayed and inter religious marriage, and economic development…”
What does this fall of Christianity mean? Maybe everything, maybe nothing. The data could be showing a dramatic shift in actual beliefs – or – it could simply be showing us a snapshot of a society that is becoming more comfortable with being honest about a lack of belief that was once considered taboo – social, cultural, and political suicide. Either way, there will likely be some real-world reactions to the data:
- Churches & Ministries: Get ready for a HUGE fundraising push by evangelistic ministries of all sorts who will use these results as proof of a need for their products/services/outreaches to “save” or “restore” the nation for Christ “before it’s too late!” (Trust me, this used to be my day job – billions of dollars will be donated with hopes of fixing the “problem” with money – sucked out of the economy into tax-free organizations. I imagine most major ministries already have their marketing departments developing catchy new fundraising pieces to beat other competing ministries to donor’s doors.)
- Persecution Complex: If the comment sections on news sites (and previous history) are any indication – this decline in Christianity will be blamed largely on the “forced secularization” of society by “evil un-American atheists” who don’t want Christian nativity scenes on government property. (If your religion depends on a plastic mannequin of your infant Lord and Savior in order to survive, well…) Yes, everyone wants to play victim – as if the decline in their religion’s membership has nothing to do with the religion itself. Let the cries of persecution (of the religious super-majority that controls all politics and has churches on every corner) ring out!
- Politics: At first glance, this might look like new trouble for the far-right GOP (and Tea Party), however – the “deserters” were likely largely liberal/progressive Christians who aren’t likely to have made big political moves. On the other hand, it does appear that hard-right conservative Christians like Ted Cruz have been doing more harm than good. That said, with a population of 20% “unaffiliated” – I think it is high time that Congress welcomes their first openly atheist member in history. (Heck, there are now 43 African American members making up 10% of the House of Representatives – compared to 12.6% in population.) Politicians need to start taking 20% of population much more seriously.
- Acts of Desperation: When a group feels that it is losing control and backed into a corner, the response is often to dig-in and fight. It has been no surprise over the last year that political/religious leaders have been upping the ante in terms of “religious liberty” by attempting to establish the Bible as the official state book in TN or by passing “Religious Freedom Restoration” act in IN, or by allowing Bible distribution in public schools in OK. In all honesty, looking back on my own experiences in ministry when the 2007 survey was released, I shudder to imagine how the religious majority will be willing to pervert their positions of power “before it’s too late”. Ugh.
- Potential Snowball Effect: As new generations are raised in “unaffiliated” households and aging generations continue to leave the church in record numbers – society will likely begin to have more open conversations about being “Good Without God” – through media, arts, and politics. As more “fence sitters” witness that it’s acceptable and safe to walk away from the church and find community elsewhere, it is not beyond the imagination that a similar study in 7 more years will show an even greater decline in Christianity in America. As this downward trend continues, it will likely only further widen the denominational divides as fundamentalist become more “fire and brimstone” while progressive churches continue to water-down Christianity into little more than a series of motivational self-help seminars that might continue to be palatable to a more secular audience.
Many “unaffiliated” non-believers might be tempted to celebrate and dance in the streets. Heck, I’ll admit that my first response to the report over the radio was a fist-pump. However, there are some very real dangers to living in a country when the religious majority suddenly realizes that it is losing power and control. It’s about to get noisy…