Amanda Marcotte’s Failure to Look at Evidence

Amanda Marcotte’s Failure to Look at Evidence March 18, 2015

In a recent piece at Salon, Amanda Marcotte trots out the secularization theory and seems oblivious to the best research in the USA that actually both denies secularization theory and supports another theory. In her piece she makes many accurate observations, but the article is shaped by a claim that America is becoming less Christian. Here are a few clips from Marcotte’s piece, and then I offer a response:

But another major reason religious diversity is outpacing the growth of racial/ethnic diversity is largely due to the explosive growth in non-belief among Americans. One in five Americans now identifies as religiously unaffiliated. In 13 states, the “nones” are the largest religious group. Non-religious people now equal Catholics in number, and their proportion is likely to grow dramatically, as young people are by far the most non-religious group in the country. This isn’t some kind of side effect of their youth, either. As Adam Lee has noted, the millennial generation is becoming less religious as they age….

The irony is that this panic-based overreach is just making the situation worse for the Christian right. One of the biggest reasons the secularization trend has accelerated in recent years is that young people see the victim complex and the sex policing of the Christian right and it’s turning them off. And they’re not just rejecting conservative Christianity but the entire idea of organized religion altogether. In other words, the past few years have created a self-perpetuating cycle: Christian conservatives, in a panic over changing demographics, start cracking down. In reaction, more people give up on religion. That causes the Christian right to panic more and crack down more. In the end, Christian conservatives are going to hasten their own demise by trying to save themselves. Not that any of us should be crying for them.

So what is the religious life of emerging adults today like when compared to the last twenty-five years? What is it like when compared to other age groups? Are millennials really leaving the church? Do the number support the claim? Two experts — Christian Smith (with Patricia Snell) and Bradley Wright deserve to be heard; in fact, these are some of America’s best social science specialists on data about the church and religion in America.

What Christian Smith and Patricia Snell discovered in their fantastic book: Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults  is nothing short of stunning. Again, we’re talking about 46 million emerging adults…

How does the following conclusion strike you? I begin with a fundamental conclusion of theirs:

Overall, then, the preponderance of evidence here shows emerging adults ages 18 to 25 actually remaining the same or growing more religious between 1972 and 2006 — with the notable exceptions of significantly declining regular church attendance among Catholics and mainline Protestants, a near doubling in the percent of nonreligious emerging adults, and significant growth in the percent of emerging adults identifying as religiously liberal (101).

Some more of their conclusions:

Younger adults tend to be less religious than older adults…
Emerging adults are the least religious adults in the USA …
Catholics and Mainliners are even less religious than evangelicals and Black Protestants…

But emerging adults since 1972 have become more religious. In their view, then, there is little evidence of massive secularization among emerging adults.

Are today’s youth abandoning the Church? Is there cause for alarm? Or is the condition with youth in the church today about the same as always?

These are questions that many people are asking and many people are also answering them. Often in uninformed ways. For about a decade I was listening to apocalyptic warnings, and while I tended to minimize such, I was on the bandwagon. I, too, believed the reports. But two valuable books chased some of this away as myth-making and fear-mongering.

Before you either quote the reports or the responses to the reports, read Brad Wright’s book: Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media.

Here are some highlights from Wright’s 3d chp, one asking if we (think we) are losing our youth.

1. Young adults are less religious, but what does this mean?
2. 12% in the 70s and 80s were unaffiliated; now 25% are. But this is the same number as with other age groups.
3. Currently, 22% of young adults are evangelicals; that’s up from 21% in the 70s but down from 25% in the 90s.
4. Negatively, unaffiliated has increased for young adults.
5. Positively, the number who are affiliated with churches has remained the same.
6. Those affiliated with Evangelicals, Black Prots, and RCC are the same as in the 70s. (Mainliners are down.)
7. No sign of cataclysmic or big changes.

Big point: young adults have been less affiliated for a long time; when they get married and have children they return to their faith. Part of the life cycle is reflected in this.

Can he predict? Wright throws sand in the eyes of those who want to predict. There is one chart, a good one on p. 71, that would indicate that current young adults will be as religious as their parents and grandparents when they become older. He, however, says predicting is a fool’s game and he won’t join the game. But there is no compelling evidence for a cataclysmic change.

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