The big news lately in the religion world is that the Pew Research Center just released another of their huge surveys about religion, the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, and it is not looking good for Team Jesus.
I’ve been talking for a good long time now about the shrinking population of Christians these past few years. One thing I’ve been saying is that Christianity is definitely having some problems keeping its membership numbers looking pretty. Its influence, power, dominance, and privilege are dwindling along with its sheer numbers–as is its money. There are a lot of factors influencing this trend, not a single one of which are likely to recede–but all of which are likely to continue growing and becoming more and more of an influence on the religion’s numbers.
I’ve never thought Christians were particularly good at facing bad news. Hell, I’m not even sure they can always even perceive the bad news. But I thought this survey was so straightforward that even the most dedicated ostriches in the religion would have to pull their heads out of the sand and finally pay attention to what’s been going on for the last ten years.
Well, color me wrong: there is no disingenuous evasion that is too disingenuous for some folks. However, in these evasions I am seeing some answers about why we’re suddenly seeing this huge sea change in people’s opinions about religion.
First, though, let’s talk about the survey. Pew Forum did one back in 2007 that most of us religion bloggers talk about at some point or other. It asked people what religion they were, what religion (or not) their homes of origin practiced, and a variety of other questions that tried to measure who was staying in the religion and who was leaving it, when, and for what.
The picture Pew Forum painted in 2007 was of a population teetering on the verge of secularism. It was good news all the way around. It revealed that about 78% of the total American population was still Christian, with about 51% of Americans being Protestant, and 26% of Americans being evangelical. (These figures come from the link up in the first paragraph.) Nones–people who are not affiliated with any religion, also known as the “none of the above” group–were 16% of the country, with about 4% of those identifying as either atheist or agnostic. And gang, that’s amazing. America, the country that fundagelical pastors and Republican candidates screech constantly is “a Christian nation,” the culture that super-demonized atheists as the evilest things to ever walk the Earth on two feet, was at best 3/4 Christian. And I say “at best” because we all know that fundagelicals don’t actually think most Christians are TRUE CHRISTIANS™ anyway.
Just to put that 16% figure into perspective, about 12% of the country identifies as African-American. About 10% of people are left-handed. This site says about 11% of Americans have a phobia about darkness. So 16% might not sound like a lot, but it was actually pretty huge.
The picture we’re seeing in 2014, though, is of a population that is starting to reach the top of the roller coaster’s first hill. If 2007 made my eyes widen, 2014 made them all but pop and my bowtie spin around like a propeller like I was in an Loony Toons cartoon.
In a nutshell, Christianity is hemorrhaging numbers. I really don’t know how else to put it. Not only did Christians slide to 70% of the population from 78%, but Nones moved from 16% to almost 23%. Evangelicals slid from 26% to 25%, which means they’re just a couple percentage points ahead of the Nones. All denominations of Christianity are losing tons of members still, but the decrease is even sharper for the mainline and Catholic groups than it was in 2007. The only bright spot for Christians might be that evangelicals are hemorrhaging less than the other groups are, but they’re all losing people–and it seems clear that evangelicals are not converting outsiders but rather poaching other Christians from other groups, or perhaps pushing their own children to “confess their sins” and be baptized at younger and younger ages (though that might just be my impression). In real numbers, that means that the actual number of Christians went from about 178 million people in America to about 172 million, with about five million fewer mainline Protestants than there were seven years ago as well as four million fewer Catholics.
Evangelicals are taking a bigger piece of the pie, yes–there are about two million more total evangelicals in the number of Christians–but the pie itself is smaller now than it was seven years ago. So there isn’t much there for evangelicals to celebrate; their religion’s getting more polarized, is all, and their brand of hatred, xenophobia, cruelty, and political oppression sells very well in that sort of climate.
Amusingly, Jews, Muslims, and non-Judeo-Christian religions gained ever so slightly. And stunningly, there are not only more Nones, but more of them identify as agnostics and atheists.
Christian leaders have been freaking out about Nones for a while now, so I knew that Pew Forum would want to take a serious look at the group in 2014 like it did in 2007. Indeed, some encouraging facts came out of the two surveys, especially about diversity. The group is becoming much more diverse in every single direction: more women, more people of color, more older folks, more people at all wealth levels and educations. It’s an amazing story all the way around. It’s still skewing white, male, and fairly young, and these changes are subtle still, but take a look–some neat stuff is happening with Nones.
But I’m not sure Christians are understanding the gravity of what this survey has discovered–or believing what they see.
Some of them are just denying that the survey is at all accurate. Christianity Today is completely positive that the survey didn’t correctly define “evangelicals.” No kidding. The problem as they see it is that evangelicals–which CT would likely consider the only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ given that it is itself evangelical in focus–weren’t correctly counted. This reminds me a little of how I heard a Christian minister explain why Christian divorce rates look pretty much like non-Christian ones; he claimed that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would never get divorced, so obviously any Christian who got divorced wasn’t a true one and so should not be counted. The contortion shocked me the first time I heard it, but since then I’ve heard a number of Christians trot it out over a number of issues.
Pew Forum defines evangelicals about the same way that most evangelicals define themselves, and indeed CT and other Christian groups and leaders seem quite content to count those false evangelicals when they’re talking about how many of them there are (which CT does in the same breath almost as stamping its feet about all those false evangelicals messing up the survey results). One must almost admire the mental gymnastics required to get from “Evangelicals aren’t being counted right at all in this survey!” to “Evangelicals are totally still totally kicking ass and taking names in America according to this survey!” One can almost hear their worried editors quivering as they reassure their indignant flocks that evangelical superiority and power remains unchallenged and uncontested. I’ve seen supplement-addled guys in gyms who were less belligerent.
And then there’s this Christian who saw the survey and decided it meant that atheists actually secretly believe in some kind of god, which I suppose means he’s not terribly worried about his religion’s chances of continued dominance (he never quite explains what the reasoning is there, despite the title of his post).
When a Christian actually can be forced to look squarely at the numbers involved here, we can expect them to pretty much blame absolutely everything but what’s really behind people’s decisions to leave Christianity–and to insult those who leave while they’re at it. This BBC opinion writer, for example, writing a couple of years before the 2014 survey got released, sniffs about how kids today are all “theological illiterates”–except for Mormons, which mystifies him–who want “pseudo-religion” that just makes them feel good and requires no investment of time, energy, or resources “unless one needs something.” With friends like that, who’d ever need enemies?
Interestingly, in that same link another writer (an ex-Christian) thinks that so many people are leaving Christianity because of their increasing awareness and understanding of LGBT issues and rights. It wouldn’t surprise me if that had something to do with these sea changes we’re seeing lately. LGBT rights are tied up in all sorts of other cultural beliefs and practices in Christianity, so a Christian who denies LGBT people their rights probably also buys into a lot of other toxic ideas. That bigotry even ties into science denial, since Christians who hold that view also generally think–mistakenly–that LGBT people were not born that way but rather made a “lifestyle choice” that can be altered with enough effort. There’s a reason why so many of the nastiest, most Dominion-minded theocratic Christians have latched onto this culture war (which, let us not forget, they started in the first place–almost assuredly expecting to win instantly and regain some of their fading dominance). LGBT rights are tied up in notions of what it is to be a man or woman or other gender, of what it is to be in a relationship and what that relationship should look like, and, more sinisterly, of how much control fundagelical leaders will be allowed to have over other people’s intimate decisions. That’s why they are so frantic about equal marriage: it would demonstrate, once and for all, just how little power fundagelical leaders have and how unable they are to force other Americans to follow their rules. That’s why they’re pulling out all the stops with increasingly WTF-level threats of civil war, meteors, drought, and worse. (They are going to be heartbroken when equal marriage becomes a nationwide thing and absolutely nothing really changes for them. It makes my heart just bleed peanut butter.)
Here, as well, evangelical Christians shine in their utter inability to understand and evaluate cultural trends. They know equal marriage is happening despite every bit of their kicking and screaming, but they don’t really understand what it means for them. One right-wing evangelical, David French, sums up what I saw a number of Christians saying when he rather snidely wrote, “If you want to destroy your church, follow liberals’ advice.” He blames liberalization–especially exemplified by treating LGBT people like Americans with the same rights that he gets–for the loss in dominance he sees happening in his religion. I suspect I could tell him what’s really going on, but I know nothing gets between
him and his Calvins a right-wing fundagelical and his cherished delusions of persecution. To borrow a phrase from Bill Mauldin, the brilliant WWII cartoonist, he’s like a dog that got run over when he ran out into the street to bite a car’s tires. You feel bad that he’s suffering, but you know it wouldn’t be happening if the dog had stayed in his yard and minded his own business.
It could well be that all the bullying Christians have been doing–bullying that has only gotten more laughably freaked out and bizarrely out of touch with reality with every passing month–has finally become the final nail in the coffin of Christianity’s power over others, like how the pedophilia scandal has finally broken the back of the Catholic Church.
It will still likely be many years before we really see the fallout of these cultural changes. Christian leaders still have their clawed hands around the throat of America and are getting even more outspoken about exerting force as they feel their onetime control slipping away. But the truth is that their hands are weak and feeble. Don’t mistake desperation for strength. The writing is on the wall here.
But all these Christians I’ve named here are planning a strategy that they hope will–if not reverse this tide–at least staunch the flow of people from their various denominations and groups. You’ve even seen a hint of it in what I’ve discussed here today.
They’re trying to create a stronger identity for their group.
They can’t prove Christianity’s claims are objectively true, after all. And they sure aren’t going to give up on their two most cherished culture wars (women’s rights and LGBT rights) or admit they were totally wrong in treating outsiders and non-believers like crap all these years. They’re definitely not willing to give up their delusions of superiority and their naked lust for power and control. So instead, they’ve got to make it harder for people to question their indoctrination. Identity formation is how I see them doing it.
We’re going to talk about that idea of group identity next, because it’s something that took me a long time to see when I deconverted and I’m pretty sure someone else might be thinking about it like I was way back when. See you then!