New Study on ‘Post-Christian’ America

New Study on ‘Post-Christian’ America April 22, 2013

The Barna Group has an interesting report on just how “post-Christian” America has become and is becoming. They try to go beyond mere labels and look at what people actually believe, using 15 different specific attributes. Here’s how they defined it:

To shed light on this, the Barna team created an aggregate metric of post-Christian culture based upon 15 different measures of identity, belief and behavior. To qualify as post-Christian, individuals met 60% or more of the factors (nine or more out of 15 criteria). Highly post-Christian individuals met 80% or more of the factors (12 or more of these 15 criteria). These 15 factors are shown in the infographic below…

“For decades, our research shows the variations of asking people about faith. For example, many self-described atheists also claim to pray to a deity. Long-time churchgoers often lack basic orthodox beliefs. People who effortlessly self-describe as ‘Christian’ may live like practical atheists in most other parts of their lives.

“Also, understanding secularization in the U.S. begins with realizing the enormous footprint of Christianity in this country. The Barna measure is designed to take an over-arching, aggregate view of society’s engagement with faith generally and Christianity specifically. While Barna Group interviews all U.S. adults in our polling, regardless of their faith, we have a unique vantage point on measuring engagement with Christianity. Therefore, our measure looks at the degree to which the nation is post-Christian.”

And here are some of the results. Mosaics are 18-28, Busters are 29-47, Boomers are 48-66, Seniors are over 67.

The differences by generation are striking, and they suggest a less “Christianized” nation in the decades to come. The younger the generation, the increasingly post-Christian it is compared with its predecessors. Nearly half of Mosaics (48%) qualify as post-Christian compared with two-fifths of Busters (40%). One-third of Boomers (35%) and one-quarter of Seniors (28%) are post-Christian. These patterns are consistent with other studies that show the increasing percentage of “Nones” among younger generations.

I don’t like some of their criteria. For example, one is whether someone has read the Bible. I dare say that atheists have generally read the Bible more than many Christians, so if someone says they’ve read the Bible, that should not be considered a “hit” for not being “post-Christian.” But this data is very interesting.

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  • Doug Little

    many self-described atheists also claim to pray to a deity


  • martinc

    Ed, the “have not read the Bible” criterion has an asterisk to a footnote “in the last week”.

  • @Doug Little:

    Pew Research Center data from 2008 found that ~20% of American self-identified atheists in their sample also claimed to believe in some form of diety, and ~6% claimed to believe in a “personal god”. Even allowing for people deliberately giving inaccurate responses, there seems to be some confusion as to what “atheist” means. Just to give an example: I recently talked to someone who claimed to be an atheist, but was actually a pantheist.

  • whheydt

    There’s a footnote associated with the “read the Bible” metric. The footnote is “in the last week”. That applies to several other of the metrics, too.

  • Ed,

    Re. the reading the Bible question: note the fine print – “in the last week”. I suspect the idea is that atheists may have generally read more of the Bible than Christians, but many Christians read selected parts of the Bible more often.

  • Artor

    If they are including people who pray to a deity as atheists, I’d tend to think they need to refine their questions a bit more. It’s a painfully regular occurrence that I, as an atheist, often have to educate Xians in comment threads about what their Bible actually says, so I’m with Ed on looking askance at that too. They may have come up with some interesting results, but if they’re putting garbage in, there’s no reason to expect that what’s coming out isn’t garbage too.

  • And I have been beaten at my typing by two others. That was fast.

  • wscott

    Interesting idea, but yeah some of their criteria are a little wonky. The “In the last week/year” footnotes are confusing and somewhat arbitrary. Ironically, if they’d asked me I have read the Bible in the last week – but I was reading it for debate fodder, not for any kind of spiritual guidance. The donating/volunteering at a church questions could also be tricky (depending on how they were asked, which I didn’t look up), as churches still do the majority of the charity work in this country. I know several people who help out at church-run food banks , homeless shelters, etc, but do so for purely humanist reasons. Asking adults if they attended Sunday School in the last week strikes me as odd too – isn’t Sunday School mostly for kids?

  • raven

    Census shows that Christianity in Britain is – Richard Dawkins

    www. richarddawkins .net/…/richard-dawkins-census-shows-that-christ…

    Dec 12, 2012 – Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science …. Seventy four per cent of the Census Christians are secular in that they think religion …

    A lot of xians are just box checkers, census xians. They check the xian box because there parents did or they went to Sunday school long ago.

    Richard Dawkins looked at that in Britain.

    Barna finds something similar in the USA and calls them post-xians. From the Barna article, 37% of US adults are post-xian.

  • raven

    have to educate Xians in comment threads about what their Bible actually says, so I’m with Ed on looking askance at that too.

    Many or most xians have no idea what their magic book says.

    It’s a horrible, kludgy book of obvious fiction and the churches try to keep the members from figuring that out. The RCC burned the first English translator, Tynsdale at the stake in an attempt to keep the common people from finding out.

    My own moderate Protestant sect did that for the best of intentions. The OT wasn’t real important and Revelation was treated like the crazy uncle locked in the basement. The vast majority of what I know about the bible was learned on my out and afterwards.

    The fundies are as ignorant as anyone about the bible. They have a few dozen or few hundred quote mined passages, often taken completely out of context, that they learn and ignore the vast majority of it.

  • abb3w

    The evangelical beliefs held by those in the Barna Group seems to be somewhat detrimental to the solidity of their overall methodology. However, while this leaves them less iron-clad than (say) work from the Pew Forum, and needing close critical scrutiny on methodology when reading, their work tends somewhat interesting.

    One tidbit I’d note is that the most post-religious market they identify — Albany, NY — I’m aware happens by correlation or coincidence also has one of the most liberal Catholic Archbishops in the country.

    @0, Ed Brayton:

    I dare say that atheists have generally read the Bible more than many Christians, so if someone says they’ve read the Bible, that should not be considered a “hit” for not being “post-Christian.”

    True — but most atheists don’t read the Bible every week, particularly if you don’t count “looking up a passage for exact chapter-and-verse citation and wording” as “reading”.

    @1, Doug Little:


    People are complex. Pew’s noted that a tiny fraction of self-described “atheists” still believe in a personal God. Also, the majority of atheists in the US were raised religiously; even if you don’t believe any more, talking to an imaginary friend still can help with dealing with stress… as long as being silly isn’t too conflicting with your self-image.

  • iknklast

    Perhaps the criterion on Bible reading should be: Has read the whole Bible, even the unpleasant bits, has read parts of the Bible, has only read the Bible stories for children, and has read John 3:16 over and over again. Very few Christians would be in the first category; most would be in the last two.

  • doublereed

    I thought the Pew thing wasn’t about atheists but “nones.” The number of self-described atheists is only like 4% or something…

    Agnostics might say that still pray to a God, but I sincerely doubt a self-described atheist would say that.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    Not only didn’t I participate in a house church in the last year, I’m so post-Christian that I didn’t even know what a “house church” is.

  • @doublereed:

    Pew has indexed both. The ’08 numbers I provided above were specifically for people who self-identified as atheists. This _was_ a small sample, which makes the uncertainties larger, but there is still a significant fraction of people who claim to be atheists or to have been atheists but are not or were not actually atheists by the usual meaning of the word.

  • raven

    RDFRS UK Press Release 1, 14 February 2012:

    Only 1 in 10 UK Christians seeks moral guidance from religion

    UK residents who think of themselves as Christian show very low levels of Christian belief and practice, according to new research.

    A poll carried out by Ipsos MORI for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) in the week after the 2011 Census focused on the beliefs, attitudes and practices of UK adults who say they were recorded as Christian in the 2011 Census (or would have recorded themselves as Christian had they answered the question).

    When asked why they think of themselves as Christian, the research found that fewer than three in ten (28%) say one of the reasons is that they believe in the teachings of Christianity.

    People are much more likely to consider themselves to be Christian because they were christened or baptised into the religion (72%) or because their parents were members of the religion (38%) than because of personal belief.

    More on census xians from the Richard Dawkins Foundation . org

    This is from the UK so it isn’t directly relevant to the USA. But the same phenomena is and will occur. Box checkers and census xians.

    A lot of those might be fundies. Fundie xianity is hollowed out, it is just right wing extremist politics with a few crosses stuck on for show.

  • Sastra

    michaelbiusch #3 wrote:

    Even allowing for people deliberately giving inaccurate responses, there seems to be some confusion as to what “atheist” means. Just to give an example: I recently talked to someone who claimed to be an atheist, but was actually a pantheist.

    Yes. I’ve also talked to New Agers who thought they were atheists simply because they didn’t believe in an authoritarian, patriarchal version of God.

    This might be balanced out by people who don’t believe in God but don’t think they’re atheists because they love and appreciate nature. I don’t know.

    I do think that any survey which starts asking ordinary people who can’t refer to a simple doctrine list what they believe about God is in trouble. Define “god.” Define “belief.” The supernatural is a fuzzy area to begin with.

  • dogmeat

    I would argue that two of the categories are worse than the “have not read the bible (in the last week).”

    First, “have never made a commitment to Jesus.”

    Never? What if I was coerced into doing so back when I was a teen or pre-teen? What if I did so a decade ago as a young adult? Simply making such a commitment doesn’t necessarily mean one still believes that nonsense. I know it wouldn’t be enough to leave someone Christian or bar them from being “highly post-Christian,” but I think it is a rather poorly developed point.

    Second, “Agree that Jesus committed sins.”

    I’m not certain I agree the guy existed let alone feel comfortable commenting on the actions of the individual. If I acknowledge that he existed, then yes, he probably committed sins, but still a rather poorly worded option.

  • wscott

    Yeah, I’ve known a few self-described atheists who believe in some sort of vaguely-defined life force but don’t want to call it God. [shrug]

    They check the xian box because there parents did or they went to Sunday school long ago.

    I think you’re right that for a lot of people it’s more a cultural matter than a religious one. But for a lot more I think they perceive it as a moral question: if you’ve always equated religion and morality (consciously or unconsciously) then saying you’re not religious is tantamount to admitting you’re a bad person.

  • wscott

    As a side note, I find it really interesting that COlorado Spring, the home of so many Fundie organizations and the Christionist Mecca came in at #35 (41% post-Christian).

  • @Sastra:

    This particular case involved someone who explicitly said “nature is God”, and used the word “God” repeatedly in discussing various woo. He was a textbook pantheist, but apparently thought “atheist” meant “does not believe in a supernatural god” rather than “does not believe in any deities”. That he did not understand ‘supernatural’ was a separate problem.

  • watry

    @wscott, #8

    Not so much. Children’s Sunday School is usually during the regular service, so they’re more likely to attend, but adults have a version of the same. Think of it as small-group church before church.

  • Nemo

    C’mon Barna, I’m not a “Buster”, I’m Gen X. And the people in the generation after mine are “Millennials”.

  • cry4turtles

    Shit! Wish I was a buster. Apparently I’ve been upgraded to a “boomer”. That’s a first.

  • grumpyoldfart

    many self-described atheists also claim to pray to a deity

    How did they define the words,

    * many

    * atheists

    * pray

    * deity

    Have they got video of any atheists praying or saying that they pray? [I’m guessing “No”]

  • michaelbusch “He was a textbook pantheist…”

    Can you be more specific? Which textbook?

  • @Modusoperandi:

    The Oxford English Dictionary, and Spinoza’s “Ethics” – although I doubt he had read Spinoza. As I said, there seemed to be some confusion in his mind as to what “atheist” means.



    Most of those words were defined _by the respondents to the survey_ (hence “self-described atheists” and “claim to pray”). “Many” was defined by the surveyors, and is admittedly subjective – is the ~20% of self-described atheists who assert belief in some form of diety “many” ? The ~6% who assert belief in a “personal god” ?

  • Nemo


    I’m not certain I agree the guy existed let alone feel comfortable commenting on the actions of the individual.

    It’s even worse than that, since “sin” is a religious term to begin with. So, to say that Jesus sinned, you have to:

    1. Agree that “sin” is a valid concept, and

    2. Agree that Jesus (in some form) existed, BUT

    3. Deny that he had a sinless nature.

    It’s a wonder they got anyone to go along with that, much less 41%.

  • Synfandel

    The term ‘post-Christian’ is an odd one. Does the study assume that everyone was at some point a Christian?

    I would rank as highly post-Christian in by that study’s criteria, but I don’t consider myself ‘post-Christian’. I have never been a Christian. I’m simply a non-Christian.

    I suspect that many Jews and Muslims would also rank as highly post-Christian, but the label hardly seems appropriate.

  • Scientismist

    Thank you, Nemo & Dogmeat — that bit about “agree that Jesus committed sins” threw me for a loop as well. It’s a completely incoherent question. It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from “Brideshead Revisited”, when (IIRC) as part of a catechism lesson, a priest asks the social-climbing but irreligious Rex (who has agreed to convert to Catholicism just in order to marry Julia) to describe the nature of God, and Rex answers “You tell me, Monsignor, it’s your religion!” It amused me no end, since I am sure Waugh thought that to be a scandalous line to give to his character, but really, it’s the only possible answer.

  • ricko

    So, depending on the question and who’s asking it, I will most often say I am an ateist. But the other part is that I WAS a Roman Catholic, and I attended a very good school (St. Mary’s in Hagerstown, Pius XI High School in Wauwatosa-Milwaukee)… And I will say that.

    I still remember how to be an altar boy at the Mass.

    But, even then, I was an ateist by the time I was 8.

    I can’t believe people think if they “pray” they can still claim their atheists.. WTF? If they haven’t rendered all gods as impossible, they aren’t atheists.

  • ricko

    So if anyone should ask, “ateist” is my way of writing atheist.

    It’s the damn strokes striking back.

  • Nomad

    Even “read a bible in the last week” is problematic. I’ve seen this addressed before. There’s a certain tendency of people’s responses to indicate whether they feel they’re supposed to read the bible, rather than whether they really have. So in places with strong, conformist fundamentalist pressure people will say that they do what they think they’re supposed to do, rather than what they do.

    So a real true believing Christian living in a more liberal area might be more inclined to truthfully answer that they haven’t read the bible in the past week, whereas a person with a vaguely Christian background but with no active belief might still respond that they had read it in the past week if they lived in a religiously conservative area where you’re expected to do such things to be a good person.

    I have no idea if the other factors might act to cancel out this effect.

  • kermit.

    Have never made a commitment to Jesus


    As the precocious grandson of the (SBC) preacher, I was born again and baptized at age nine. By 12, I realized that all the adults I knew, and the god they worshiped, were insane. By 13, I was an atheist, and have been for the last 49 years. But this counts as a god-hit in their reckoning?



  • To put yet another spin on it, an atheist could be “praying to a deity” in order to refute religion. “All right, I’ll pray to your god for a week, and when he doesn’t fix my nearsightedness, will you leave me the hell alone?”