Recently, a new Pew Research study was conducted to gauge the level of religiously “unaffiliated” people in the USA, their political involvement and other demographics. The actual study is an interesting document of data and statistics. I’m not a statistician so I can’t necessarily comment on a lot of that stuff but, suffice it to say, there is a decline in people who indicate they have a religious affiliation.
Now, of course, this gets a lot of people talking. On one side we have folks talking about “finally this country is leaving behind superstition” and on the other side we have folks panicking “we need to get out and get this country back on track”. News articles and blogs have already been written commenting on this stuff. You can read two of them here and here.
For me, I have one thing to say.
I’m not surprised at all.
First of all, to all those who are rejoicing that we’ve left superstition behind, the survey doesn’t say that. In fact, most of those “nones” actually still believe in something supernatural and spiritual, they just don’t align with a particular religion at all.
Secondly, to those who are panicking, welcome to post-modernism/post-Christendom. This is something that writers and bloggers and such have been trying to get across to American Christianity for decades. What we are seeing here in the US has been an understood fact of life in Europe for decades. All this study does is confirm what we’ve expected all along.
Thirdly, this study does not just represent Christianity but religious affiliation in general. So, it is less of a Christian problem and more of a general cultural trend. To get up in arms to “save Christianity” in America isn’t really warrented.
Finally, concerning the decline in Catholicism and Protestantism, I’m not sure if that really says anything. I’ll comment more on that later but it implies only those two categories and does not pay attention to some broader movements within Christianity on the global scale.
One thing the statistics in the study don’t seem to address is some of the underlying reasons why this may be happening. It tries to address this question by quoting facts and states about identification with a congregation and such, but I’m not sure that really gets to the core, at least regarding Christianity. I’m going to attempt a guess, but I don’t know if there are stats to back it up. So…
First, calling oneself a Catholic or Protestant is a categorization that does not take into consideration a movement among US Christians to set aside such categories and, instead, follow a more general Christianity. In fact, my own tradition of Mennonite/Anabaptist, traditionally, does not affiliate with either Protestant or Catholic. And Eastern Orthodoxy also does not fall into the indicated categories. This lack of category is characteristic of post-Christendom/post-modern Christianity in that people who come up within that world view are less concerned about “flavor” of Christianity and more concerned about authenticity and demonstrable faith. So, to use this study to lament the decline of either of those two camps loses sight of the broader more ecumenical view being talked about among many Christians in our post-Christendom culture.
Secondly, it is possible that what we are seeing is actually a naturally occurring corrective in Christianity. For a long time, Christianity in the US has been defined by “where do you go to church” and “what denomination are you”. Your status as a Christian is associated with the institutional congregation that you call “home” and the specific doctrines that congregation subscribes to. Again, as a more post-modern worldview sets in, people are less interested in the intellectualized and rationalized faith and more interested in lifestyle. Hypocrisy of the institutionalized faith is one of the main criticisms of Christianity today so we should not at all be surprised that people are no longer aligning with the institution. This means that there are many followers of Jesus who are gathering in other less formalized communities that could easily be classified as Christians but, because of the connection to congregation being a prime data point in the study, are overlooked. So, this increase in “unaffiliated” may be a little bit of both people abandoning Christianity totally as well as people who aren’t affiliated with “official” Christianity but are still disciples of Jesus.
Finally, again with the post-modern and post-Christendom turn, we have the general distrust of reason and modern “scientific” applications of faith as mentioned briefly above. What this does is it weeds out those who may have only based their faith on what they can reason and, when that reason is challenged, have nothing further to stand on. When all you have is reason and not a spiritual connection to God through Jesus, if you can no longer trust reason, you have nothing but emptiness. And so you leave. This is probably the biggest tragedy in that this is one thing that actually does point to a decline of Christianity, at least as an acknowledged faith practice. But again, it’s no surprise. Remember the Parable of the Sower? Jesus already knew this was going to happen. Troubles come around, problems happen, people see the world going along with Helena and her Handbasket, and they doubt and fall away because they didn’t have their roots drinking the living water. What is left isn’t necessarily something to lament, but something to rejoice because real Christ followers are what is left. This goes along with people who have made the gospel about America, have made it about financial wealth, have made it about health, have subscribed to “good rewarded bad punished” and all sorts of distortions.
So, while I agree the Pew study needs our attention, I wonder if it is necessarily as bad news as we might make it out to be. Is it really a problem, or is the church being refined and purified to be a better witness? Time will tell.