Is American Christianity Really In Free Fall?

Is American Christianity Really In Free Fall? October 22, 2019

The Pew Foundation has just released a significant report concerning the state of American religion. As with anything done by Pew, both the research and the analysis are exemplary, and the findings are convincing. I will challenge one small but important thing in the report, namely its title – but I will be arguing a great deal with the way in which it has been represented in the media. We are seeing substantial changes in religious attitudes and beliefs, but they are just not what is being headlined. Based on multiple reasons of definition, I honestly don’t think American religion is in trouble to anything like the extent that is suggested.

The report in question is titled “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace: An update on America’s changing religious landscape.” That “decline in Christianity” point is obviously eye-catching, and in different ways it provides the core of media reports. The British Guardian headlined “Americans becoming less Christian as over a quarter follow no religion.” The Wall Street Journal declares, more broadly, “Religion Is on the Decline as More Adults Check ‘None’,” and you will undoubtedly see your own variants.

“Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace”… ??

So what is happening? The Pew report findings can be summarized thus:

Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. …

Just like rates of religious affiliation, rates of religious attendance also are declining. Over the last decade, the share of Americans who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month dropped by 7 percentage points, while the share who say they attend religious services less often (if at all) has risen by the same degree.

Everything here follows naturally from earlier Pew reports, and the trends are consistent. I argue with next to nothing in the way the researchers have done their work. So why am I quibbling?

Several reasons. One is methodological, and applies to any kind of social survey. Just thirty years ago, pollsters could rely on a predictable share of respondents picking up their phones, and agreeing to answer questions. The whole economy of communications has since then been utterly transformed by the rise of cellphones, and the coming of Caller ID. Chances of finding representative samples have declined accordingly, and response rates are way, way, down. The Pew study specifies the means it uses to correct for this problem, but problem it is.

The Nothing in Particulars

But let us set that aside. Let me focus instead on these famous Nones. Who exactly are they? Although the “None” terminology dates back to the 1960s, another Pew study published in 2012 drew intense media attention to what appeared to be a rising social trend. Not only were the Nones abundant, but their numbers had grown sharply, from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2007 and to 20 percent by 2012. Another Pew report in 2013 found that “Religious ‘nones’ – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular’ – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population.” Today, the figure is 26 percent. If in fact we understand these people to be of “no religion” – defined as atheists or agnostics – then the United States is evidently moving to European patterns at a headlong rate. To put it crudely, the religious content of America’s future appears to be, well, None.

But as the most recent study carefully points out, None does not equal no religion, or no religious belief, and you should dismiss any media report that suggests otherwise. By any reasonable standard, in fact, American Nones are a surprisingly religious community. In 2012, a third of the unaffiliated said that religion was very important, or somewhat important, in their life:

Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day.

Those proportions are of course higher for the sizable majority of Nones who are “nothing in particular,” rather than avowedly atheist or agnostic. A typical “nothing in particular” None is a person who believes in God and might pray regularly, but who rejects a religious affiliation. Given the religious breakdown of the larger population, most of the Nones come from Christian backgrounds, so that the religion that they choose not to admit belonging to is Christianity. Quite a few seem to attend church with varying degrees of regularity.

Here is an interesting question: if someone believes in God, prays frequently, reads the Bible, and regards themselves as Christian, but rejects a denominational affiliation – even something as broad as Protestant or Catholic – should they properly be counted as Christian? I would say so, unequivocally. I would also say that this description applies to a good proportion of the Nones. And that does raise real questions about the “decline of Christianity” tag, which to me seems to be going well beyond the evidence. And don’t get me started on the idea of religion being in decline.

Think of it in terms of default faith. A venerable joke declares that everyone in the US South is a Baptist. Baptists are Baptist, of course. Catholics are really Baptist, and atheists are Baptist, because the God they don’t believe in is the Baptist God. A variant makes the very same point about Lutherans in Minnesota, and other regional examples assuredly exist. The joke makes an excellent point about the default or residual quality of the religious belief system that underlies a formal denial of faith or denomination. Non-religious attitudes certainly have grown in the past two decades or so, but much of the “None” phenomenon actually involves a changing approach to self-identification, rather than an outright desertion of religion, still less of religious belief.

Believing and Belonging

I am thinking here of the concept of believing and belonging, as famously framed by sociologist Grace Davie. Whenever we look at figures for any religion, we have to balance those two idea. You can believe and belong; you can belong without believing; or you can believe without belonging. Most of the “nothing in particulars” are rejecting belonging, but that says nothing whatever about their believing. Whenever we talk about religions declining – whenever we used a loaded term like secularization – we absolutely have to define what we are measuring: believing or belonging?

What has changed in recent years is that the Nones are not formally identifying even as Christian, and that fact – that denial of belonging, if not believing – requires explanation. To understand the American situation, we can usefully compare studies undertaken in the 1980s or 1990s, which likewise indicated a reluctance to commit to specific denominations or doctrinal assertions. In 1993, scholars Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman suggested that 86 percent of Americans were Christian, with Catholics by far the largest proportion, at 26 percent, and Baptists (almost 20 percent) the largest Protestant group. (And even at that point, Nones constituted over 8 percent of the whole). Each denomination was listed according to size, but any estimates of actual numbers were severely skewed by the very large number – over 14 percent of the whole – who claimed to be just “Protestant” or Christian.”

Many such people identified with the Christian faith in general, but were not prepared to be aligned with particular denominations. In some cases, that might reflect indecision, or a woolly kind of religious sentiment, but such a response might equally imply a principled reluctance to endorse divisions within the faith.

Against Institutions

As the new century began, social and political changes were altering people’s willingness to profess even a general alignment with denominations, or with religion in general. The reaction that produced the Nones is not directed against faith, but against institutions, and how they behavior. As the earlier Pew study noted in 2012, “Overwhelmingly, [the Nones} think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” Meanwhile, many Protestants, and particularly evangelicals, were troubled or disgusted by the appropriation of religious rhetoric by conservative and Religious Right politicians, who seemingly made “evangelical” or even “Christian” a synonym for Republican causes of the most reactionary kind.

That distaste reached new heights with the Trump victory in 2016, when evangelical politics were widely criticized as a thin disguise for white racial self-interest – for advocacy of “White Christian America.” For the shifting meanings of the word evangelical,” and the loaded ideological connotations of the E-word, do see the important recent book by my Baylor colleague Tommy Kidd, Who is an Evangelical? 

Catholics meanwhile were alienated by the seemingly endless cycle of clergy abuse scandals, which entered a new and still more alarming phase after 2002. Beyond the general air of scandal, individual dioceses and parishes were hit hard by recurrent stories of particular priests being implicated or removed, and institutions being forced to pay vast settlements, with dioceses forced into bankruptcy.

The rise of the Nones coincides closely with these twin trends, and the consequence would be to discourage individuals from admitting to generic labels with which they had been comfortable only a few years previously. A person who in 1993 might have affirmed his or her identity as Protestant or Christian might now choose the “None” label, regardless of any change in actual belief or practice. In these years, the proportion of Americans who admitted to being Catholic dropped by five or six percent, and most of those presumably migrated to the “None” camp.

Reported levels of religious affiliation thus declined quite steeply, regardless of any change in supernatural belief. When a 2018 study asked “nothing in particulars” why they rejected religious affiliation, 47 percent disliked the positions churches took on social or political issues, and 31 percent disliked religious leaders. Only 21 percent denied a belief in God. I suspect that as future surveys track the numbers of Nones, we will see a steep upswing during and following that divisive election year of 2016. How could it not?

Of itself, rejecting religious affiliation does not mean forfeiting a religious world view, or indeed abandoning any substantial amount of the belief system of any particular faith. To that extent, it is wildly inaccurate to see the Nones as forsaking religion. But the Nones are a real phenomenon, and arguably, the existence of the category actually contributes to genuine religious decline. For one thing, in a highly religious society, considerable community pressure persuades many people to state notional adherence to a prevailing religion as a kind of default position, from which it takes real motivation and willpower to dissent. We think of Catholics in American big cities in the 1950s, or Baptists in much of the South. The fact that people in significant numbers are now prepared to admit “nothing in particular” demonstrates a serious weakening of that community solidarity, and of the strength of institutions.

Attending and Admitting

Arguably too, the growth of such publicly confessed indifference helps shape the statistics on which we base our knowledge of religious activity and participation. Look again at that figure I cited earlier about the apparent collapse in people saying they attend religious services – and do note the precise language used by those careful Pew researchers, that they are counting “the share of Americans who say they attend religious services [my emphasis].” It’s a basic assumption of survey research that people overclaim on behaviors that are pro-social, or socially approved, such as giving to charity. Surveys always have turned up more people who claim to go to church, say, than actually attend, and everybody knows that. In an age when people don’t feel the social pressure to declare a faith or denomination, they are also more prepared to admit publicly that they never attend religious services. We can legitimately wonder how far the recorded drop in attendance figures represents an actual change in behavior, rather than greater honesty among respondents.

Could this be a change neither in believing nor belonging, but in saying?

The decline of reported attendance we have witnessed in recent years might be a dual phenomenon. While some people really have stopped attending churches, others have just become willing to state publicly that they do not attend, instead of pretending piety, as they have in the past. Generally too, the more attention that Nones receive, the more acceptable that position becomes, particularly among the young.

At the same time, media framing of None as meaning no religion, rather than just no affiliation, raises the profile of active atheism or agnosticism, and places those approaches in the cultural mainstream. Against such a background, politicians or media outlets feel far less pressure to make even residual acknowledgments of religious opinions and constituencies, making it much easier to adopt avowedly secular stances. The question also arises: how long is it possible not to belong to a faith in any institutional sense before it affects one’s basic belief in that system? A year? A generation?


So is American religion changing? No question. But how far is this a real decline of faith, and how much is it a reduction in people’s willingness to affirm membership in institutions they neither like nor trust?


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