Religion, Current Events

On All That “Christianity Is Dying” Stuff

A number of my atheist friends have celebrated the new Pew surveys (purportedly) indicating the collapse Christianity in America. That’s not what the polls say. For instance, evangelical Christians, the Christians my atheist friends most mistrust and dislike, are doing fine:

While it should be noted that evangelicals’ share of the overall U.S. population dropped by 0.9% over the last seven years based on denominational affiliation, the percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as evangelical rose from 34 to 35% over the same period of time. Don’t miss that: More than one-third of Americans call themselves evangelical.

And despite what many are saying, evangelicals are attending church more than ever. The latest (2014) General Social Survey found that in the last two years of the study a greater percentage of evangelicals are attending church than in any other time of the last 40 years. Currently, 55 percent of evangelicals attend church at least nearly every week.

The religious people going secular are people with low conviction and/or political and religious moderates – people who take positions between the extremes of evangelical faith and secular progressivism (and secular libertarianism).

I think we should all recognize a downside to this social phenomenon, regardless of our views. The great good mainline Protestantism provided this country for centuries was the good of having political and social “moderates” in general. They create the social space for political and religious partisans to translate their concerns into language that the other side could understand (think Mr. Rogers or Jimmy Carter when he was president). Having lots of social, political and religious moderates makes that easier, since there are a lot of people prepared to take both sides seriously. The guy who goes to church every so often both respects his wife as a woman of faith and his scientifically oriented son. When mother and child disagree, he can smooth things over. Similarly with religious and political moderates in the public square.

The more moderates we lose, the harder it is for those of us at different ends of the political and religious spectra to understand and respect one another. After all, there are fewer people insisting that we do so.

So with regard to the new data, score 1 for those who give their lives meaning by trying to defeat their religious and political opponents. Score 0 for those of us who would like to live well with people different from ourselves.

  • Tim O’Keefe

    “So with regard to the new data, score 1 for those who give their lives meaning by trying to defeat their religious and political opponents. Score 0 for those of us who would like to live well with people different from ourselves.”

    Uh, wow–from a self-proclaimed proponent of “wanting to live well with people different from [yourself],” it’s pretty divisive to brand many people celebrating the poll results as “‘giv[ing] their lives meaning by trying to defeat their religious and political opponents.” You could be a little more charitable.

    And I distrust the rhetoric of celebrating the supposedly “moderate middle” versus the “extreme extremists.” You can live your life as an atheist, or a “mainline” Protestant, or an evangelical, in a way that promotes understanding and mutual respect or that doesn’t.

    • Tim O’Keefe

      FYI, Jimmy Carter is an evangelical Christian.

      • Kevin Vallier

        Jimmy Carter was (a) a white evangelical, (b) a Democrat and (c) got elected president. Today, that cannot happen, and I suspect it will not happen for a long time.

        • Greg

          Is Hillary Clinton not an evangelical, then?

          • Sean II

            Well she is married to Elmer Gantry, if that counts.

          • JoshInca

            A marxist evangelist.

          • phwest

            No -mainline (Methodist)

  • Bryan C. Winter

    Interesting perspective. I’ve always been really uncomfortable with the polarization in American thought. I find myself more and more being called a corporate shill by liberals and bleeding heart by conservatives. Restraint and open mindedness is a virtue in science and business. It always seem like people think it’s a vice in politics.

    • LLC

      My feeling is that if I’ve got both extremes pissed at me, I’m pretty much where I need to be.

  • Kurt H

    Presently evangelicals may be a large share, but if you look at the age distributions [url]http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/compare/religious-tradition/by/age-distribution/[/url] you quickly see that this will be temporary. All religious groups (except Mormons and Muslims) are declining in number as age decreases. The falloff in mainline Protestantism is simply much more dramatic than the falloff in evangelicals. If the trends continue, children born today will be majority non-religious.

    If you click through the various tables, you find that the number of under 30 evangelicals in the sample is approximately ~1400. The number of self-identified atheists and agnostics in that same age range is ~1000 (out of ~2600 “nones”). What we are seeing is that the more hardcore versions of Christianity are more resilient to the secular trend, but they too are fading away.

    • JoshInca

      This assumes that people are born evangelical Christians rather than converting into it.

      • Sean II

        Actually, it makes an even more foolish assumption: that teenage and young adult rebels won’t later abandon their flirtation with what Michael Bluth called “the secular world”, and become holy rollers like their parents.

        This is a common enough pattern out in the prole sections. Girl meets boy. Both hit puberty. Boy rebels against Jeebus values in a total shallow pentagram t-shirt sort of way. Girl thinks rebels are sexy. Both quickly discover one compelling reason to take a hiatus from traditional morality: for though it’s cold and lonely in the deep dark night, they can see paradise by the dash board light.

        Girl gets pregnant. Boy and girl quickly find out that shallow t-shirt rebellion is not enough to see them through to a dilation and curettage. Boy and girl put up a token fight with what remains of their skepticism, briefly vowing not to raise their child as they were raised. But boy and girl know the only thing making their little economy work is grandma’s babysitting, so the pressure to come back and hear Pastor Skip each week is mounting. Plus, think boy and girl, doesn’t the little brat look just cute enough to be living proof of Jesus Magic?

        Five years on, boy and girl are both unironically checking the box for “Christian-Protestant”. After ten years, when their spawn is on the cusp of fertility, they suddenly get serious about it.

    • LLC

      OK. You’ve got me curious. If out of 2600 ‘nones’, only 1000 identified as either agnostic or atheist, what were the other 1600?

  • I think the libertarians can actually act as a great moderate stint. We see the positives and negatives of both sides! I think someone can be religious and still be sympathetic to atheist. There are plenty of very positive things about atheist as well, seeing as they claim to have a pretty good grasp on science and reason. Why can’t they then understand varying perspectives? Case in point, Jonathan Haidt, who actually identifies as a pluralist, and although he is a liberal atheist he can understand various viewpoints. I’m a christian and a libertarianesque person, I can identify with many of the same issues that liberals and conservatives do, I can understand and sympathize with Conservatives and Athiest. I guess I don’t really see anything in the polls, doesn’t say much about the person.

    • LLC

      Haidt is not as liberal as he used to be. He Now identifies as more centrist.

      • Sure, he has mentioned something of that nature. Thank you!

  • Joshua Holmes

    1. “Unaffiliated” is not “secular”. Plenty of unaffiliated people are “spiritual but not religious” and have religious beliefs that are important to them. My Facebook feed is full of Deepak Chopra and Rumi quotes from people who’d never darken the door of a church.

    2. “Unaffiliated” is not “militant atheist”. It’s possible to be unaffiliated with religion without hating religious people or religion itself, and even more possible to listen to religious people even without belonging to a religion. For instance, LGBTs have built a massive amount of support from straight people in the US.