Shun, shun the unbelievers (not really)

Since the day this blog opened for business, your GetReligionistas been saying the same thing over and over about the structure of modern American religion.

Our sermon has sounded something like this. On one side of the American religion scene is a camp of religious traditionalists, of various kinds, that makes up about 20 percent of the American population. On the other side is a corresponding camp of roughly the same size made up of three groups — true secularists, “spiritual” but not religious people and faithful religious liberals. In the middle is the post-denominational, non-doctrinal marketplace that I have, for the past decade or so, started calling “OprahAmerica.”

There are all kinds of variations on this theme out there in the marketplace of ideas, from the work of sociologist James Davison Hunter, creator of the much-misquoted “Culture Wars” thesis, to research conducted by evangelical (whatever that word means) pollster George Barna, to the statistical portrait of the “anti-fundamentalist voter” painted by political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce of the City University in New York. All kinds of people are talking about the “post-denominational age” in which religious labels have little meaning and, to be blunt about it, most of them have the facts on their side.

But, most of all, you can see the changing religion landscape in one article that your GetReligionistas keep begging readers to check out — which is that “Tribal Relations” piece that ran in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, written by scholar John C. Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and journalist Steven Waldman, the czar. The key is that there is a true left and a true right in American religion and culture, but that these opposing doctrinal camps are not where the real action is these days. For better and for worse, the heartbeat of America is found in the mushy middle — even on a topic like abortion.

Now we have another study that shows just how confusing things are getting inside and outside all of those pews and pulpits. Here’s the top of the USA Today report by veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman, which focuses on the modest growth of honest unbelievers and the vaguely spiritual believers:

When it comes to religion, the USA is now land of the freelancers.

The percentage. of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation. The faithful have scattered out of their traditional bases: The Bible Belt is less Baptist. The Rust Belt is less Catholic. And everywhere, more people are exploring spiritual frontiers — or falling off the faith map completely.

These dramatic shifts in just 18 years are detailed in the new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), to be released today. It finds that, despite growth and immigration that has added nearly 50 million adults to the U.S. population, almost all religious denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS survey in 1990.

And here’s the statistic that will grab the most headlines:

So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990), that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, “the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion,” the report concludes.

If you want to explore some of these numbers yourself, click here for some of USA Today‘s nifty online graphics or, even better, chase this connection to the ReligionLink site for a collection of URLs for the study materials themselves and some additional commentary.

There are all kinds of subplots in this story — from the mini-rise of the Wiccans to the ongoing decline of the oldline Protestants, from the changes linked to social mobility to the sad plateau occupied by many evangelical churches. But the overarching storyline is not new. We live in the age of smaller and smaller niches and fading brand loyalty. This has been the broad trend for several decades and now we have another study underlining that reality. Cheers.

But it is possible that the unbelievers are going to be “hot,” in media terms, especially since — again here’s the news — this adds to an interesting coalition on the cultural left that is climbing toward statistical parity with those dreaded “values voters” of old. Then again, house-church evangelists from China are preaching on street corners in Berkeley. Things keep changing.

But the big, big trend remains the same. Welcome to the post-denominational age. You can see this in a nice summary passage in the Washington Post coverage:

The increase in people labeling themselves in more generic Christian terms corresponds strongly with the decline in people identifying themselves as Protestant, the survey found. People calling themselves mainline Protestants, including Methodists and Lutherans, have dropped to 13 percent of the population, down from 19 percent in 1990. The number of people who describe themselves as generically “Protestant” went from approximately 17 million in 1990 to 5 million.

Meanwhile, the number of people who use nondenominational terms has gone from 194,000 in 1990 to more than 8 million. … The survey substantiated several general trends already identified by sociologists: the slipping importance of denomination in America, the growing number of people who say they have “no” religion and the increase in religious minorities including Muslims, Mormons and such movements as Wicca and paganism.

In other words, American religion is getting even more complex and nuanced. This means it is even more important that newsrooms contain Godbeat (or godsbeat) professionals offering a blend of experience, training and talent. That’s obvious, but in the current business climate that is not going to be easy. But you knew that already, didn’t you? After all, you’re reading this weblog.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    This means it is even more important that newsrooms contain Godbeat (or godsbeat) professionals offering a blend of experience, training and talent.

    It’s no doubt implicit in your list, but I’d explicitly add the ability to understand another group’s point of view even when it’s totally alien to yours. I’d also add the ability to see the big picture and put each story into a reasonable context. And, to be complete, the ability to leap tall buildings with a decent running head start.

  • dalea

    Fascinating data. The Other Religions is a bit confusing as it uses Wicca as an example. But at 2.8 million practitioners, does this include Hindus and Bhuddists? Rather confusing presentation, find I have more questions than answers.

    OTOH, in 1952 the world population of Wicca was less than 10. There were none in the US.

  • str1977

    I think this is either misleading reporting or building huge claims on air:

    “So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990), that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, “the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion,” the report concludes.”

    If Christianity is challenged en masse, one should look not just at the percentage of those “claiming no religion at all” but also at the perecentage of those of other religions and – this is most notably absent – the percentage of Christians as a whole.

    How can one compare the percentage of those people of disparate views lumped together under “no religion” with individual Christian denominations?

  • Jeff

    Terry, what’s always frustrating to me is how slow religious liberals are to realize that the “true secularists” and hardcore atheists have just as much contempt for them as they do for traditional “god-botherers,” maybe more. Instead of earning their respect through compromise and getting support by speaking out on the same policy issues, the atheist/secularist cause just is getting bolder and bolder.

    Which is my other point — viscerally, i don’t really think there’s a growth in numbers from 8 to 15% over the period they’ve studied. What’s changed is that it’s become that much more acceptable in mainstream circles to be a vocal, aggressive anti-theist, so folks who were more colorlessly neutral on religion and self-identification are more open about what they really feel/believe/don’t believe.

    And catch me in the right mood, and i’ll suggest that’s really a good thing. They are letting us know what they think, and what they’d like to see happen, and that perhaps allows us to speak and preach and minister in response more effectively.

  • will

    What the data seems to indicate to me is the non-news of liberal protestantism. How surprising that the children of secularized relativist Protestants should adopt the secular mindset of their parents but leave behind Sunday morning services. The relatively small number of Catholic drop off is a little more confusing to me, I would have expected a larger percentage of Catholics to have stop identifying as Catholics given the bad press that Catholicism has received now for decades and especially since 2002, not to mention as well Catholicisms own problem with albeit relativist secularism with in its ranks.
    The headline in my local paper would lead you to believe that what the report found was that droves of Catholics have abandoned the Catholic Church for unbelief.

  • will

    Sorry that should read

    What the data seems to indicate to me is the non-news of liberal Protestantism’s demise.


    not to mention as well Catholicisms own problem with albeit officially rejected relativist secularism with in its ranks.

  • FW Ken


    In The Catholic Imagination, Fr. Andrew Greeley wrote of the propensity of Catholics to continue identifying themselves as “Catholic” long after they cease to practice.

    I saw this recently, when visiting a friend shortly before her death last month. I have never heard her mention faith or religion in the 8+ years I’ve known her (we worked together), but on this last visit, she referred to herself as a “lapsed Catholic”, not an “ex-Catholic”. I learned after her death that, despite the “problems with the Church” and that she “didn’t know what [she] believed” she talked about, she asked for a priest before she died. A couple of years ago, a friend who went to a bible church was dying of cancer. She had been raised Catholic, which I didn’t know, and she asked me to get her a priest.

    Being Catholic is something in your bones, as well as in your head and heart. At the end of the day, I think the bones speak loudest.

  • Stoo

    Jeff, I’d guess there’s an increase both in neutral “not much of anything” types moving to declared atheism, and unsure believersfence sitters etc moving to anywhere from “not muhch of anything” to “spiritual but not religious” atheism.

  • Stoo

    er that should be:

    “not much of anything” to “spiritual but not religious” TO atheism.

  • hoosier

    FW Ken,

    I’d agree in part with your sentiment, although I don’t know about the whole bones thing. But I’ve known many people who were either not outwardly religious or in fact hostile to religion who, when asked “what religion are you” by someone who didn’t know them, would answer “Catholic” simply because they’d been raised Catholic and had been confirmed. A very good friend from college told me he didn’t believe in god (which is kinda the dictionary definition of atheism) but that he was Catholic. I don’t know what impending death would do to these people, but I get the sense that Catholicism, somewhat similarly to Judaism (although only somewhat), is in part cultural. All of these people grew up in the South, where Catholicism is very much in the minority. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but I never met a nonbeliever raised as a baptist or in the Church of Christ who claimed those faiths, only Catholics and Jews.

  • Camassia

    Dalea, I would think Hindus and Buddhists would be in the “Eastern religions” category, not “New movements/other.”

    One interesting thing in USA Today’s chart that neither article mentioned (unless I missed it) was the growth in the “other Protestant denominations” category, which the footnote describes as groups like Churches of Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists. (I don’t think JWs call themselves Christian, much less Protestant, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment.) There still aren’t enough of them to make up for the losses in larger demonimations, but it’s a notable exception to the overall thesis people are deriving from this.

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  • Joachim Derichs

    I d expect the Catholic story to be something like this: American born Catholics leaving in disgust, immigrants making up the shortfall, for a net effect near zero.

  • Perry L. Stepp

    The presentation of the survey results is misleading. One problem is that the summary breaks out conservative Protestant / evangelical groups — Baptist, non-denominational, Pentecostal — and presents their numbers separately.

    Those groups have more in common today than they did two or three decades ago, and (with the declines in denominational loyalty) a significant group of Christians float between them.

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  • Ed

    The mini-rise of Wicca is true. As a primary teacher of Wicca, we have seen our site teach more than 200,000 people wordwide, beginning in 2001. And it is not just the United States, it is Europe, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and South Africa with similiar growth patterns.

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