Is it true that Christianity’s hold on many Americans is slipping, losing out not to other faiths but to “no faith”? That is, if the percentage of people with “no religion” almost doubled over the last two decades, does that signal a drift away from the number of people in America who say they follow Jesus?
I don’t think so.
First, according to last week’s survey released by the Gallup organization, church attendance continues to hold steady, even increasing slightly. See also this earlier Gallup survey. The latest poll found that 43.1% of Americans reported weekly or almost weekly church attendance, up from 42.1% in 2008. Though a small increase, Gallup noted that it is statistically significant since the data is based on more than 800,000 interviews collected between February 2008 and May 2010. The most dedicated churchgoers according to the Gallup organization are conservatives, blacks, Republicans, people 65 and older, from the Southern states, and married people. Those least likely to attend church at least once a week or almost every week are liberals, Asians, and those aged 18 to 29 years. A 2009 Gallup poll had not found any evident change in church attendance during the economic recession, particularly between 2008 and 2009.
Second, one of the biggest errors made by the media about the rise of the religious “nones,” as this oft-headlined group has been dubbed, is mistaking the religiously unaffiliated for secularists. According to the data, most “nones” would not consider themselves atheists; in fact only 10% explicitly identifies as atheists (no God) or agnostic (unknowable God). More than 50% believe in either a higher being or a personal God. A remarkable 27% of “nones” say a personal God definitely exists. Further, most “nones” are first generation; only 32% of current “nones” report they were “none” at age 12. (And of “converted nones,” 35% identified as Catholics until age 12.)
Much of the “none” hooplah comes from the American Religious Self-Identification Survey (ARIS), with results from its third wave (1990, 2001, and 2008) released in recent weeks by its sponsor Trinity College in Hartford, CT. The survey interviewed 54,461 adults, also finding that non-Christian faiths recorded the fastest overall rate of growth after the “nones,” but representing only 4% of Americans: primarily religious Jews (1.2% of the population, and declining), Islam (0.6% of the population, and increasing), and Buddhism (0.5% of the population, and increasing).
It seems that more than anything else, people are changing labels. Many are shedding denominational loyalties for a more generic Christian allegiance. “Denominationalism, or Christian brands, have eroded since 1990 –- even Protestant doesn’t mean anything anymore,” says Dr. Barry Kosmin, a principal investigator for each of the ARIS surveys.
To me the bigger issue is how churches will respond now that a good fraction of the population is being raised outside the religious orbit – for example 30% of married respondents said they were not married in a religious ceremony and 27% of all respondents said they do not expect to have a religious funeral when they die. How can we be most effective in making disciples, especially with those who have spiritual interests, but who are turned away by labels?