Is Religion Really Declining in America?
Everyone’s talking about a recent Pew survey allegedly showing that nineteen percent of Americans say “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. As a result, one news outlet declared that “religion is declining” in America. Another (headline) stated that the survey shows “unbelief” is growing. I question the interpretations of the survey (as I question those of most surveys—especially about religion).
There can be little doubt that “religious affiliation” with specific, nameable religious organizations is declining. We are in a trend away from highly visible, structured denominations. Many church goers do not know what “religion” their church is. In part that’s because of confusion about the word “religion.” When confronted with the term, many people immediately imagine a specific denomination—“Catholic,” “Orthodox,” “Lutheran,” “Episcopal,” etc. If they attend a church without such a highly visible denominational affiliation, as many do, they may answer “none” to a question about their “religious affiliation.” They mean “I don’t belong to any specific denomination.”
I was raised with much confusion about religious terms and labels. Our little denomination was “not a denomination but a movement.” Only much later did I come to realize that we were a denomination. “Denomination” was sort of a bad word. Other people belonged to denominations and had “religious affiliation;” we had fellowship energized by the Holy Spirit.
Over the years I’ve come across many people who are strong believers in some gospel, some religious belief system, some form of spiritual reality and practice, but who, for whatever reason, prefer not to name it with any of the traditional sociological categories and labels. “We don’t go to church; we have fellowship with others in our home” or “We don’t have ‘religion’; we worship God in Spirit and in truth.” Etc., etc.
Then there are the many, perhaps numerous, people who have simply dropped out of any form of organized religion but still have religious beliefs and practices. How often have I heard “We just can’t find a church?” Too often to count. Or “I got burned out on churchianity but I pray and read my Bible.” Too often to count.
I can readily imagine many people I know to be deeply religious checking “none” on a questionnaire that inquires about their “religious affiliation” (or simply saying “none” if asked by a survey taker)—for various reasons.
Recently I was at a Baptist church in a large metropolitan area. I asked two employees what Baptist denomination, conference or convention the church belonged to. Neither knew. Later I found out the church is affiliated with a state Baptist convention and a metropolitan Baptist association. But the people I asked misunderstood my question; apparently they thought I was asking about a national group. Right now the church doesn’t belong to any.
A friend visited a Church of God in a city she’d never been to before. She asked someone in the church if it was part of a particular denomination. (There are many called “Church of God.”) The person didn’t know.
I believe many deeply spiritual, religious people, even people who attend church often and are deeply involved in church life on some level and of some kind, are simply ignorant or confused about “religious affiliation.” What are they likely to check on a questionnaire if their religious practice basically comes down to watching podcasts or television programs of sermons, etc.? What are they likely to check if they are between churches or have simply dropped out of organized religion altogether—even though in their own minds they believe in Jesus? What are they likely to check if they attend a house church unaffiliated with any larger network or organization (that they know of)? What are they likely to check if they frequently attend, but have not joined, a megachurch with no denominational label?
By “religious affiliation” the survey designer may mean simply “Christian” or “Jewish” or “Buddhist” or “Muslim,” but the survey taker may think “church membership in a church with a specific denominational affiliation” or something else entirely.
In conclusion, I’m not drawing any conclusion from the Pew survey results except that an increasing number of Americans don’t belong to any specific religious organization or, if they do, are confused about what it is or what to call it. They may nevertheless be deeply religious and even identify as “Christian” although they don’t “affiliate” (whatever that means to them) with any organized form.