Social and mainstream media are abuzz about the rise of the “nones” and the decline of people identifying with religious institutions. A lot of the discussion reflects quite a bit about each writer’s hopes and dreams about religion’s future.
Atheist and progressive writers are excited that more people are questioning religious beliefs while conservative Christians gleefully respond that the figures show only a rejection of liberal Christian alternatives. The lessons people are taking from the recent release of the Pew Research Center’s second U.S. Religious Landscape Study, a follow-up to its first study of religion in America in 2007, are more enlightening than the actual poll results.
That bastion of Evangelical Christianity, the magazine Christianity Today, headlined its analysis: “Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America,” while another headline read: “Christianity in Decline and Atheism on The Rise in America.”
The report mostly documents the slow rise in the number of Americans who don’t want to identify with any religious institution. Some who check the “none” on the poll are atheists, some agnostics and skeptics, but others are “spiritual” or just don’t identify at this time in their lives with a denomination.
However we want to read such polls, here are some interpretive thoughts:
(1) Whether a statistic has changed or not doesn’t mean that the same people are a part of the statistic. For at least the third year in a row, the national poverty rates have hovered around 15%.
Though the poverty rate has remained unchanged, the reality is that different people actually move in and out of poverty. The unchanging rate doesn’t measure the same people. In fact, four of five Americans will at some time in their lives struggle with poverty, and many actually move out of it thanks to, in fact, the social safety net that’s criticized by the right-wing for supposedly keeping people dependent.
In the same way, “none” may be a position that people move in and out of. That makes the position fluid in including those temporarily unidentified.
Church historian Sydney Mead called America, “a marketplace of souls.” That distinguishes American religiosity from so much around the world – churches are exchanging souls rather than settling for people remaining just whatever their parents were.
Overall, what these polls mean, then, is that people are not always willing to take what religious leaders, institutions, and communities tell them to be universally true even if they move in and out of their current religiosity. The poll measures a growing skepticism with the authoritative hold of religious leaders, traditions, and institutions.
(2) Pollsters tell me that there are two questions on which people are more likely to lie: (a) Are you a likely voter? (b) Do you attend a religious service regularly?
But this doesn’t just apply to individuals. Religious institutions have ways to add people to their membership without subtracting them sometimes even upon death.
People often leave churches without formally announcing their departure. They remain on rolls counted as “inactive” but members, and sometimes after leaving, they still claim their old institutional identity.
(3) Labels don’t always signify the same thing to different people. So, grouping them together as a block on any issue is questionable.
The designation “evangelical” is one example. So is “born again.”
According to the recent Pew survey, a rising share of adults in various Christian traditions self-identify as born-again or evangelical, including: mainline Protestants (27% in 2014, 25% in 2007), Catholics (22%, 16%), Orthodox (18%, 16%), Mormons (23%, 21%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (24%, 17%), and spiritualist Christians (24%, 15%).
Remember, Jimmy Carter was one of the first presidents to use the phrase “born again.”
In addition, more gay men, lesbians, and bisexual people identify as evangelical (13%) than atheist (8%) or agnostic (9%). Overall, “evangelical” ranks as the third most-common identity among this group, after Catholic (17%) and “nothing in particular/religion not important” (14%).
(4) It’s clear that religious organizations that are reporting the highest percentage of losses are traditionally larger mainstream denominations. These usually are the denominations with more liberal theological options.
Right-wing Christians love to point to this as proof that the liberal message is an unappealing deviant Christianity. Right-wing churches respond to what turns the culture off not by questioning their message, but by changing the packaging it’s wrapped in to allure pop culture followers whose commitment can be as shallow as the packaging.
There are individual progressive churches that are increasing in membership, but many are asking how they can get new members to join while their memberships turn grayer. For progressive churches that turnaround will take some new thinking about what a progressive religious institution is.
By their theological journeys, they’ve already thought of their faith in new, less legalistic and judgmental ways, not merely in how many people they baptize or how many butts are in the pews on Sunday mornings. The problem is that denominational hierarchies continue to measure success and mission on the basis of what brings in more people on Sunday mornings.
During my ten years as president of the board of a large progressive ecumenical campus ministry, we learned that the new generations, particularly the “nones” aren’t drawn to religious buildings based on theology, but through opportunities to be involved in changing their world for the better. Many of these students would otherwise never enter a church.
The future of progressive churches will be in terms of what they do during the week, how they take open public stands for LGBT people, working people, people not of their demographics, and those who might worship alongside of them who don’t look prosperous. The younger generations’ leaders will want to be a part of their out-there progressive actions once they see them; only later will they start asking about beliefs.
(5) As long as right-wing churches can continue to demean and ridicule progressive religion, they’ll find reasons to do it. But be prepared: when progressive churches show popularity, expect right-wingers to act like addicts who’ve had their supply threatened.