Keeping up with the “none” crowd

windowofdoubtI meant to put a link up to this fascinating little essay earlier, but forgot in the blitz that is the final week of the semester at the Washington Journalism Center.

Remember that survey not that long ago from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the one (yes, it’s hard to keep track of them all) that led to the headlines about the sharp increase in the number on secular and “spiritual but not religious” folks in postmodern America? We’ll you do remember the nonNewsweek cover about “The End of Christian America“? The key stats for those who have forgotten: The percentage of Americans calling themselves “Christian” went from 86 percent nearly two decades ago to 76 percent, while the “no affiliation” tribe zoomed up from 8 percent to 15 percent.

Well, along comes our friend Steven “Beliefnet czar” Waldman, with an essay in The Wall Street Journal offering an interesting counter-spin on those numbers. Instead of the “traditional religion in American is diving” spin, coupled with the “here come the new secularists and post-Christian sort-of believers,” Waldman offers a perfectly logical twist.

The key: Lots of people, for a long time, who have said they were believers were sort of, well, lying. All of those Easter Christians and Passover Jews? What if they were just going through the motions with their lips zipped shut?

Here’s Waldman, talking some sense:

From the hoopla, one might have the sense people are driving straight from church services over to their secular humanist meetings. But based on a new survey that came out from Pew Religion Forum, I’d like to pose a different theory: what we’re seeing is not a flight of the religious but rather the changing nature of the irreligious.

The Pew study founded that 79% of the currently unaffiliated — also known as “nones” in the survey — started off life connected with a religion. But get this: only 30% of “nones” who used to be Catholic and only 18% of former Protestants said they’d had strong faith as a child. This is true even for those who attended church regularly. In other words, perhaps it’s not that the devout have lost their way, it’s that the nominally religious have stopped pretending to be religious. Perhaps what we’re seeing is not an increase in the number of “nones” but an increase in the numbers willing to admit it.

Now there is good news in the numbers for the religious left, that is if their goal in life is to see religious conservatives loss some numbers. If the goal of the religious left is to stop declining and to actually grow and win converts, well, the numbers still don’t look very good.

Waldman notes that people headed out the exit doors said that they were doing so for three reasons:

* “Religious people are hypocritical/judgmental/insincere”
* “Many religions are partly true, none completely true”
* “Religious orgs. are too focused on rules, not spirituality”

Other than that last one, those sound like reasons to exit any formal church or another building containing sinners of the liberal or conservative stripe.

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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

    I’m reminded of my statistical “Bible”: “How to Lie with Statistics”. It should be required reading for anyone who reports on statistical results.

  • http://eclecticmeanderings.blogspot.com/ Hank

    It has been my experience that when one makes a major personal decision such as leaving a church, they do so for may reasons. When asked why the reason given (singular) will be one that is socially acceptable.

    Without questioning the fact the that the reasons stated were among the reasons people left, I would think that in the current situation they are mentioned as socially acceptable and there actual importance may very from important to negligible.

    Certainly there needs to be follow up. I doubt that church that responded to those reasons would be addressing the primary causes.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I have that book, Jerry! I love it.

  • benjdm

    The percentages still have a ways to rise:

    http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=707

    “Over the last few years, several different surveys have found that more people admit to potentially embarrassing beliefs or behaviors when answering online surveys (without interviewers) than admit to these behaviors when talking to interviewers in telephone surveys. They are also three times more likely to say that their sexual orientation is gay, lesbian or bi-sexual. Researchers call this unwillingness to give honest answers to some questions in telephone surveys a “social desirability bias.”

    It is therefore no surprise that in this online survey, more people say they are not absolutely certain there is a God than have given similar replies in other surveys conducted by telephone.”

    The survey came up with 27% of the U.S. being atheist or agnostic. A similar poll a few months later came up with the same 27% ( http://www.harrisinteractive.com/news/allnewsbydate.asp?NewsID=1131 ).

  • stoo

    t’s that the nominally religious have stopped pretending to be religious

    I think that’s the first goal the New Atheists and secular movements are aiming for anyway, as opposed to somehow converting the devout. I can’t recall exactly but I’m sure Dawkins has said as much. The fence sitters, the unsure, the “go to church just cos that’s what they were brought up to do” types. Etc.

  • Bern

    Honesty is a good thing . . . and I think Waldman is definitely on to something. I have always thought that people–self included!–tend to answer surveys in such a way as to put themselves in the “correct” category. That is, if conditioned to believe going to church is a “good” thing, then the more you go, the better you are . . . so, an Easter/Christmas Christian for example becomes an “occasional” church goer or maybe even a “regular” church-goer, depending. A similarthing geson in say suves rating Congress: Yes, Congress is corrupt and everybody should be replaced . . . but we’ll vote our own rep back in over and over and over . . . .

  • Dave

    Having known many who came to Unitarian Universalism, and a smaller number who came to Paganism, from other traditions, I find Waldman’s interpretation entirely reasonable.

  • Darel

    Even if Steve Waldman is correct, I think Bern (commenter above) has struck upon a just-as-important consequence of Waldman’s analysis — that the “correct” answer in America is no longer to feign religiosity. There is no longer any deep stigma against atheism, just a shallow discomfort (too bad Pew didn’t give us a regional breakdown of the data).

    Waldman’s answer #3 for disaffiliation strikes me as the most honest reason, by the way. By definition, a religion concerns communal beliefs and practices. It is not a libertarian “spiritual” society of individuals “doing their own thing”. Increasingly Americans flock to Wicca or Western forms of Buddhism or other esoteric spiritualities because none of them asks the believer to conform their lives to an external Truth.

  • Tyson K

    I think Waldman really hits on something here. I have an atheist friend who always reminds me that if you compare the number of Americans who claim to be Christians to the number of Americans who claim to attend church regularly, there just aren’t enough pews to go around. This is simply a logical outcome of that effect.

  • dalea

    Darel says:

    Increasingly Americans flock to Wicca or Western forms of Buddhism or other esoteric spiritualities because none of them asks the believer to conform their lives to an external Truth.

    But these religions place a very heavy practice burden on people. Buddhism requires long meditations and daily practice. Wiccans frequently perform ritual three times a day, as well as participate in group Sabbats. Neither one would reduce time demands, in fact they increase the amount of time one spends on religion.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    But these religions place a very heavy practice burden on people. Buddhism requires long meditations and daily practice. Wiccans frequently perform ritual three times a day, as well as participate in group Sabbats. Neither one would reduce time demands, in fact they increase the amount of time one spends on religion.

    This would be totally true IF Americans and other Westerners actually fully practiced Eastern religions in their proper forms.

    In fact, most seem to take snippets from several different faiths and construct their own, individual one, or take what they wish from one faith and leave the “hard” parts or the parts (like the Eastern version of reincarnation) that seem not as popular with them.

    As for Wicca, I know that many do devote themselves to the Craft and it is for them a true religious devotion, but for others, it’s the easy and fun way to experiment with Nature worship without actually “doing” religion or having any rules. The same, of course, can be said of the easy, painless religious life 80% of self-described Christians are engaged in.


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