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Pew’s American religions survey draws mixed response from Christians

May 12, 2015

Boy, it’s been fascinating to read some of the Christian reactions to the Pew Research Center’s latest survey on American religion. The big takeaway, if you haven’t read the headlines, is that the Christian share of the population is declining while the number of religiously unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic or “northing in particular”) continues to rise. Which Christians are losing ground? Well, according to Pew, it’s the mainline Protestants (Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.) and Catholics. Evangelicals, apparently, are holding their own.

Here’s a sampling of responses to the survey:

  • The church isn’t the problem, this Catholic blogger argues, divorce is! When families split up, children are less likely to attend church consistently or have a solid religious identity. These stats should not be seen as a victory for atheism, he writes.
  • A Christian author claims Pew has a secularist agenda and skewed the results. It’s all part of a movement to attack Christianity. (This from an email his PR guy sent to media outlets today. Seems like a good angle for Bill O’Reilly.)
  • Americans losing their religion? It’s Obama’s fault. Am I reading this Western Journalism piece correctly?
  • On a more scholarly note, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) contends that Pew played fast and loose with the Catholic population data as detailed here by researcher Mark Gray. (The Pew folks should address these concerns.)

No surprise there would be some grumbling among some Christians.

On the other hand, Christianity Today’s coverage of the report seemed rather gleeful given the good news (so to speak) for evangelicals, the magazine’s target audience. Check out the headlines: Pew: Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America: Amid changing US religious landscape, Christians ‘decline sharply’ as unaffiliated rise. But born-again believers aren’t to blame.

Accompanying the article: a picture of an American flag with a cross where the stars should be.

Well, OK!

But enough about Christians. I need to spend some more time with the survey results to learn more about the religiously unaffiliated (often referred to as the “nones”). We’ve been talking about them — and their marked rise — for years. But it’s hard to get a handle on them. Who are these folks? They are not easy to pinpoint. Not all are secular. Not all are “spiritual but not religious.” Some grew up with religion; others didn’t. Their experiences and beliefs may vary wildly. If fewer and fewer people affiliate with a particular church or denomination, what will that look like down the road? What does it look like now? This is a goldmine for religion writers and other reporters who write about such trends.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2015 9:00 am

    Thanks for covering the Pew report. For years evangelical researchers (e.g., Ed Stetzer) have been saying two things that reports on this report are now acknowledging: (1) The reports of Christianity’s decline (in the West–an important qualifier) are focusing on “mainline” collapse while ignoring the resilience of evangelical groups, and (2) the “nones” have always been as numerous as current reports show but what has changed is the declining sense of social obligation to identify as religious. As for the second point, most evangelicals don’t bemoan the loss of such nominal Christianity. For example:

    • eeflynn permalink*
      May 13, 2015 4:32 pm

      Thanks, Tom! Russell Moore’s piece is really powerful. No punches pulled. What a persuasive and fearless writer her is. I’m guessing you saw his op-ed on immigration in the WSJ? So good, right up to the dynamic last paragraph: An immigrant brother in the next pew is a person to be respected, a creation of God, not a piñata for politicians. “Born again” comes in Spanish as well as English versions—and so do voters.

  2. May 13, 2015 9:57 am

    Odd that Catholics and mainline protestants are both losing adherents. They ain’t much alike. Evangelicals, however… All that fervor works, apparently. Plus, according to reports, the Mexican illegals, at least, tend to be Evangelicals. So they’ll be getting a boost.

    • eeflynn permalink*
      May 13, 2015 4:17 pm

      Hi, Dick! Yes, mainline Protestants have been bleeding adherents for decades, but the decline in Catholics seems to be a newer trend, which speaks in part to your point about higher numbers of evangelical Latinos.

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