Another Social Science Miss: Non-Members Still Go to Church

Another Social Science Miss: Non-Members Still Go to Church September 1, 2021

A recent Gallup poll found that church membership in the United States has fallen to below 50%, sparking still more commentary on the decline of religion.  But follow-up research has found that most of those non-members still identify with a particular religion and a substantial number still attend church every Sunday!   Evidently, social scientists don’t quite know how to get at religion.

We blogged about the Gallup findings in our post Churches without Members, Christians without Churches.  I raised some problems with the research:  namely, that many congregations don’t even have membership anymore; and with many Christians, church is something you “go to,” rather than something you “belong to.”

This new research pretty much confirms what I thought.  Christian social scientist Ryan Burge is the author of The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.  He found, in the words of the title of his article on the subject, that 1 in 10 Non-Church Members Still Show Up Every Sunday.  Nearly a quarter show up sometimes.

Not only that, nearly 60% of the non-members still say that they hold to a particular religious tradition.  (For example, 13% say they are Catholics, for whom everyone baptized in the church is a member, which shows that some of the non-members actually don’t know whether they are members or not.)  Only just over 40% of the non-members consider themselves atheists (8%), agnostics (8%), or Nones (25%).

Again, “membership” is not a useful category to accurately assess the reach of religion in America.  That fact is significant in itself, confirming Robert Putnam’s point that Americans are not joining organizations of any kind, to the great harm of our social attachments.  But even though being on a membership roll is an objective fact that can be measured, which commends it to social scientists, that alone cannot account for religious adherence.

Social scientists studying religion try other survey questions, such as how often the subject attends religious services.  Corporate worship is important in Christianity, but less so in other religions–such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism–some of which involve purely private observances.  Social scientists who seek to measure religion in terms of worship attendance would probably be shocked to learn about their Christian bias.

Even surveying beliefs, while better and informative in its own right, is not a foolproof measure.  Affirming a belief in God begs the question of what you believe about who God is.  Believing in the Bible does not tell us what a person believes the Bible teaches.

What I would like to see is a survey about faith, which is not the same as belief, as such.  Not that a person’s faith can be measured, but we could learn about the object of that faith.

It would be extremely interesting, for example to simply ask a version of the old evangelism question “If you were to die today, why should God let you into Heaven?”  What percentage of Americans, or of Christians, would say that they trust in the work of Christ for their salvation?

Subjects would have as a survey option that they do not believe in Heaven and they do not believe they will go to such a place.  Most, I suspect, would reply with some version of the conviction that “I am a good person.”  Many who identify as Christians will indicate that they trust in their good works for their salvation.  This will be true of Catholics, to be sure, but also many Fundamentalists and evangelicals.

A more comprehensive study of faith, which goes beyond “organized religion,” could draw on Luther’s insight in the Large Catechism that focuses on the object of one’s faith.  He asks, what do you trust?  That’s your God.  “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress.”  So whatever you put your faith in–money, the government, your family, your work, your self, or Christ–that is truly your religion, whether it is idolatrous or focused on the God revealed in His Word.

A study of that would truly be telling.  I suspect that it would show that the number of Christians is, indeed, smaller than ever.  And that even people who consider themselves Christians may really place their faith elsewhere.  But it would also disclose much about the Nones, atheists, and other secularists.

What percentage of Americans put their faith in the government?  Knowing that could have huge political and policy implications.   What percentage of Americans put their faith in themselves, which is probably the biggest superstition of them all?



Illustration by mohamed mahmoud hassan via, CC0

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