Perhaps Atheists Should Be Hitting the Panic Button

Perhaps Atheists Should Be Hitting the Panic Button July 14, 2012

My friend and colleague David French asks whether Protestants should “hit the panic button” when they see statistical charts like these:

My answer would be: No, we do not need to hit the panic button.  But it’s a very interesting graphic and there’s much to be learned from it.

In the interest of being careful readers of statistics, let me point out a few things:

  1. If 50% of Baptists left to become Methodists, and 50% of Methodists left to become Baptists, then both would have only a 50% retention rate, and yet “Protestantism” (or this section of it) would have a 100% retention rate.  So the table is potentially misleading.  Denominations have less significance than they once did amongst Protestants, so one would expect there to be more movement within denominations than between entirely different religious traditions.  So what looks like a failure to retain could be movement across the differentiations within Protestantism — and ostensibly a part of the strength of Protestantism is that it provides a variety of forms and contexts where people can find a suitable worship home.  One would need a master “Protestant” category here in order to see a retention statistic that really presents a fair comparison to “Catholicism” or “Buddhism”.
  2. The information comes from the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey — and there you can find a “Protestant” category.  53.9% of Americans say that they were affiliated with Protestantism as children, compared to 51.3% now — a drop of 2.5% in absolute value, or a decline of 5% proportionally.  Most of the loss has come from Baptists and Methodists.  While I would rather see Protestants’ share growing, a five percent drop in “market share” is no reason to hit the panic button, especially when you consider that Protestants are the largest religious group in America, and therefore had the most to lose in the first place.  As immigration becomes more global, as more come from the Middle East or the Far East, the share of Protestants is likely to decline, at least in the near term.  Also, it’s worth nothing that 16 percent of Protestants became Protestants from having been something else, which is not bad movement in our direction
  3. It’s worth noting the terms, too.  “Affiliation” means different things in different settings, but quite a lot for many Protestants.  I may have retained my “affiliation” with Hinduism, but that may only mean that I endure a few rituals per year and hang a picture of my ancestor over my fireplace, not that I actively honor the many Hindu gods.  Or I may retain my “affiliation” with Judaism but that only means that I continue to celebrate Hannukah, not that I retain traditional Jewish beliefs.  There are some areas of the country where membership in a Protestant congregation is common, and a low bar.  But for much of Protestantism, being a Protestant means actually believing that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for your sins.   When affiliation means “belief,” and those beliefs have been under rather relentless assault by the prevailing culture, maintaining 95% of your share is not bad.

There are other interesting things to note in the Pew study:

  1. We often hear about the spectacular growth of the LDS Church overseas, but here in America it appears to be stagnant at best, or even losing ground.  The LDS Church in America is losing more members than it’s gaining, and its share of the American populace has declined from 1.8 to 1.7 percent.
  2. Only 51% of those who are presently evangelical were raised in evangelical churches.  In other words, nearly half have “converted” to evangelicalism.  11 percent of current evangelicals were raised Catholic and 31 percent were raised non-evangelical Protestant.  This is a decent picture of health.  Evangelicals are not attracting many from non-Christian religions, however.  Of those who have converted to evangelical Christianity, only about 4 percent come from other religions and 12 percent were “unaffiliated” (which can mean many different things).
  3. Although we often speak of the growth of the “Unaffiliated” or the “Nones,” very few of those are actually atheist or agnostics.  16.1% of Americans now identify as unaffiliated, but only ten percent of the unaffiliateds identify as atheists and only 15 percent as agnostics.  The remaining 75% identify as nothing in particular.
  4. Also, while there are more people joining the atheist and agnostic ranks than leaving, it doesn’t bode well for atheists that 60-70 percent of those who are raised atheist renounce their atheism.  If it were so compelling a solution over the long term, one would think the retention rate would be higher.

So perhaps the atheists should be hitting the panic button?  They’re winning converts, but no one seems to want to stay for long.  Why can’t they convince their own children?

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  • DougH

    There are some interesting figures in the book *What Americans Really Believe* by Rodney Stark (& co.). From 1960 to 2000 the membership of liberal Protestant churches, measured per 1000 Americans, had shrunk 49%, Catholics had shrunk 5%, while conservative Protestant churches had grown 158% and the LDS Church had grown 122%. Meanwhile over roughly the same period the percentage of atheists has stayed essentially the same, at 4%.

  • L.W. Dickel

    And then Jesus came upon his disciples and said, “What, brethren, is this ridiculous bullshit I’ve been hearing about me being a human sacrifice for your sins!!? Hast thou lost thy fucking minds!!!!? What in the goddamned hell kind of Neanderthal bullshit is that!!? Blood sacrifice!!!!!!!!?? Are you all insane!!? Listen, brethren, as I tell you a secret. Love me, adore me, praise me. But please, for the love of the Buddha, stop with this sadistic, immoral, disgusting, sickening, vile, wicked, pathetic bunch of Stone Age bullshit about blood sacrifices!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It’s fucking outrageous and it makes us all look like a bunch of goddamn deluded, brain-dead lunatics!!!!”–Jesus Christ, the Lost Gospel

    • Jack

      Your willingness to engage in reasonable, respectful dialogue speaks volumes. Why, I’m ready to abandon my faith right now! It’s not just your airtight logic either; your graceful – yet so subtle! – use of the English language is, sir, a revelation. I can’t believe Voltaire wasted his time writing actual satire when ignorant, profanity-saturated rants are clearly so much better.

    • Morgan

      Stay classy, L.W.

    • the ignorance of L.W.

      That seriously has to be one of the most completely ignorant comments that I’ve seen on the subject. Jesus wasn’t “hearing about” the sacrifice he would make, he was preaching and teaching about it. He willingly gave up his life to save us, not quite the version of blood sacrifice that you describe. And speaking of the term “blood sacrifice” you use it as a plural in the end of your thoughtless and clearly uneducated rant. What other “blood sacrifices” are you referring to? See, if there was only one, it would be a sacrifice, not sacrifices. Now you are learning something. Seriously man, agree or disagree with the Christian faith, no problem, to each his or her own, but read a book, learn a little bit and garner an understanding of a topic before you strap on your keyboard muscles and post such idiot banter.

    • Deacon Jim Stagg

      You are scary. L.W. Hope you don’t have any guns lying around.

    • PutMoreOnMyPlate

      No, Christians go further than the shallow roots of a “blood sacrifice.” Anyone can be a “blood sacrifice” only Christ could physically become sin, past present and future sin, and be slain on that cross to rise three days later triumphant. There is nothing more glorious than that.

  • James

    You seem to be under the impression that agnostics and atheists are out to convert others. We aren’t.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Some are, yes. Every time an atheist tries to convince a Christian (or etc.) that her faith is phony and better abandoned, he is trying to “convert” her to his point of view. But quite apart from the question of conversion, most atheist parents *do* want their children to (as they view it) remain free of the enslaving superstitions of religion. So that’s that.

  • Jimmy L

    CHRISTIANITY: The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. Makes perfect sense.

    • Jimmy L. – we will add you to the prayer list along with LW. May your arrogance and mockery be transformed into humility and worship. Even though it doesn’t make sense to you now, we pray that one day it will. You mock our beliefs, and we pray for your salvation. That’s Christianity, my brother.

      • AEM

        While Jimmy L’s description is creatively worded, did he actually say anything that is inaccurate? Magic tree, talking snake, woman made of a rib, evil soul force, telepathic master acceptance, consuming flesh, eternal life, man who comes back from dead and ascends to the heavens. I see neither arrogance or even mockery — again, just an alternate way to describe what Christianity directly teaches. The arrogance, it seems, is assuming that someone else needs “salvation” because they don’t believe the way you do.

        • Sarcasm, like Jimmy L’s description of Christianity, is saturated with arrogance and mockery. In stark contrast, it is hardly arrogant to be concerned with the eternal destiny of another human being. We’ll add you to the prayer list, as well, brother / sister AEM.

  • Jason Firestone

    So they polled children ? 50 % of Catholics cannot state what is meant by “transubstantiation”, 50 % of Luterans cannot state who Martin Luther was.
    Maybe they better administer the stupid test first.

  • DNFTT, people. Do not feed the trolls.

  • denverjay

    those beliefs have been under rather
    relentless assault by the prevailing culture,
    maintaining 95% of your share is not bad.”
    here we go again- those poor persecuted Christians. as of 2009, 78 percent of Americans call themselves Christian. how is that attack by the prevailing culture? the prevailing culture is Christian. you wanna feel under attack try espousing atheism in ” fly over” country

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Did I say “persecuted”?

      To be more precise, there are many prevailing cultures. But bear in mind that the culture-makers need not share the same views as the majority. The majority are now pro-life, but the people making the products that define our culture — television shows, magazines, movies, music, advertisement — are much more likely to be pro-choice.

  • L.W.,

    You are not funny, clever or insightful. You have no answers. You mock God, your heavenly Father who loves you, and who sent His son to save you. I pray you find salvation in Jesus Christ and experience God’s deep abiding love and power in your life.

    • There’s praying and praying. If I’m ill, and you pray for me, then that’s okay. I won’t ask you to, but if you take it on yourself, I won’t object.

      Praying for people to change their mind? Now that’s just creepy. Cut it out.