Is Christianity collapsing in the United States?

The Pew Research Center just released their latest survey of religion in America: In the US, Decline of Christianity Continues at a Rapid Pace. If you take the survey at face value, it paints a picture of the United States experiencing the first majority godless generation in the nation’s history, with large urban areas becoming mostly secular within the course of a mere decade.

As a person with a quantitative background, I have been trained to look for what I call “sanity tests” in reported data. If your data suggest something that is powerfully contradicted by your experience on a large scale, then … don’t publish your data. Run more tests. Try asking your questions differently and see if you get different results.

I often offer the popularity of Trump as an example of this principle. In fact, Trump regularly uses sanity tests to undermine his critics with great success. Fox News publishes a survey suggesting that a majority of people in the US support his impeachment. (It’s the first time liberals have loved a survey from a conservative organization.) Trump then holds two rallies in the course of a week, one in a historically blue state and one in a historically red state, both packing to capacity professional basketball arenas with sometimes tens of thousands of viewers outside the arena watching him speak on big-screen televisions. He books over half a million new small donors in a matter of weeks. If you weren’t an innumerate idiot, you’d have some questions about your polling methodology and predictive prowess.

Let’s ask some “sanity test” questions about Pew’s data, shall we?

From Pew:

Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.

Our first problem here is that their question is phrased this way: “What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?”

Those are your options in the survey. Now, take the example of a person who was raised Roman Catholic but has become deeply disillusioned by the Church because of the clergy abuse scandal and a pope that blesses plants. (Church finances, a good proxy or sanity test for this scenario, suggest millions of Americans fit into this category.) You try going to an Eastern Orthodox church, but everyone’s talking in Russian. You try to go to other high-church denominations, but you discover Episcopalians and some Lutherans are shouting their abortions, which disgusts you existentially. You go to Evangelical services, but don’t quite grok the praise music with lyrics an overhead projector. Not your style. Suddenly you are keeping your kids at home on Sundays, hoping for a better pope in your lifetime.

Does that mean you have renounced Christ? Absolutely not. Does that make you perhaps describe yourself as “something else” or “nothing in particular”? Um, yeah, probably it does. By Pew’s methodology, this person who is perhaps too faithful a Christ follower for their denomination is lumped in with atheists. That’s not a commentary on American society, it’s a commentary on how surveys reflect bias or ignorance about the topic they are purportedly studying.

Let’s try a different scenario. I have a lot of younger relatives (Millennials and Generation Z) who passionately resent organized religion for many (sometimes very persuasive) reasons. They don’t understand why they need to listen to a boring, hour-long sermon delivered by a stranger when they can get down on their knees at any place and at any time and talk to God directly. Would they consider themselves “nothing in particular”? Um, yeah. Might they also call themselves followers of Christ? Of course. I would submit to you that these folks are almost 100% likely to find themselves in a pew on a regular basis within their lifetime, like when they go through some personal crisis and find they need the support of a community or when they get married or want to have their kids baptized like they were.

Pew also highlights the general godlessness of the Democratic Party versus the Republican Party:

Religious “nones” now make up fully one-third of Democrats. And about six-in-ten people who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party say they attend religious services no more than a few times a year. The ranks of religious “nones” and infrequent churchgoers also are growing within the Republican Party, though they make up smaller shares of Republicans than Democrats.

On the one hand, all you need to do is look at the policy ideas of the Democratic Party front-runners now to see there’s some truth in this: suddenly there’s much higher and much more vocal support for abortion, and in particular, late-term abortion; the suggestion that churches and religious non-profits should face progressive ideology litmus tests to be able to keep their tax-exempt status; support for public persecution of commercial interests that buck the party on gay marriage or transgender rights, and so on. There is no doubt empirically that an antipathy toward Christianity is driving people out of the Democratic Party.

(As a digression, Democrats eliminating the tax-exemption for churches and hospitals only frees them up to become powerful political bundlers. Right now, the only thing stopping megachurches from becoming Republican community organizers is the tax-exemption. Talk about not understanding the implications of tax policy, geez.)

The situation is a lot murkier among Republicans and Independents. There are certainly more non-believers among Republicans than there used to be, but they are likely wildly different than the non-believers among other groups. George Will makes a case for atheists who are sympathetic with religious folks and demand a society tolerant of religious belief in his new book The Conservative Sensibility. (In fact, he devotes a crazy-long chapter entirely to this topic.) But once again, Pew is likely mis-characterizing people who do not like their options as far as organized religion is concerned in with atheists. This is another area where political fundraising is probably a better proxy for true belief profiles than a poorly-worded survey.

One of the things I have always found somewhat ironic among progressives, particularly atheist progressives, is this notion that history is moving in their favor. To the extent that Millennials hate going to church, they are a blip in the trajectory of the church. The Catholic Church has been around for two thousand years. Many Protestant denominations have been around for several hundred years. The opinions of a 25-year-old do not “cancel out” wisdom traditions that have survived far more tumultuous times and far more violent cultural purges than current higher education institutions being controlled by aging hippies. John Dewey was followed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush. Your cultural biases are not inevitable.

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