Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pew's Latest "Religious Landscape" Survey: Christian Affiliation Declining Sharply in U.S., "Nones" on the Rise, Largest Net Losses Among Catholics — Valuable Commentary

Unaffiliated Make Big Gains Through Religious Switching; Catholics and Mainline Protestants Suffer Large Losses

Yesterday, Pew Research Center released a report on its findings in its latest "Religious Landscape" survey, which looks at the state of religion in North America. The last such survey was in 2007. Here's what Pew finds in 2015:

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups.

In addition, "[T]he percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years,  from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014." And, though this decline is across all demographic groups and among all Christian bodies, it is "driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics."

As religious affiliation among Christians declines in the U.S., younger Americans increasingly opt for unchurched status: 

One of the most important factors in the declining share of Christians and the growth of the "nones" is generational replacement. As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations. Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33). And fewer than six-in-ten Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with seven-in-ten or more among older generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Just 16% of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11% identify with mainline Protestantism. Roughly one-in-five are evangelical Protestants.

For American Catholics, in particular, the Pew findings should provoke some serious soul-searching: Pew finds that, 

[W]ithin Christianity the greatest net losses, by far, have been experienced by Catholics. Nearly one-third of American adults (31.7%) say they were raised Catholic. Among that group, fully 41% no longer identify with Catholicism. This means that 12.9% of American adults are former Catholics, while just 2% of U.S. adults have converted to Catholicism from another religious tradition. No other religious group in the survey has such a lopsided ratio of losses to gains.

As Cathy Lynn Grossman notes for Religion News Service, 

13 percent of U.S. adults are former Catholics, up from 10 percent in 2007. . . . Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of research, said "just 16 percent of the 18-to-24-year-olds today are Catholic, and that is not enough to offset the numbers lost to the aging and switching."

Grossman adds,

"Overall, there are more than four former Christians for every convert to Christianity," said [Alan] Cooperman [Pew's director of religious research]. . . . Many of today's formerly faithful left conservative evangelical or Catholic denominations because "they saw them align with a conservative political agenda and they don’t want to be identified with that," [Mike] Hout [a sociologist at New York University who is a co-director of the General Social Survey] said. . . .The "nones" — Americans who are unaffiliated with brand-name religion — are the new major force in American faith. And they are more secular in outlook – and "more comfortable admitting it" than ever before, said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

And as Sarah Posner points out at Religion Dispatches, 

Much of the rise of the "nones" is attributable to religious switching, mainly from Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. One-fifth of Americans raised Christian are now unaffiliated, said Smith. Here, he said, "Catholicism really stands out. Fully 13 percent of the US adult population qualifies as being formerly Catholic." For every convert to Catholicism, he said, there are six former Catholics. "There is no other religious group analyzed in the survey that has experienced anything close to that kind of ratio of losses to gains via religious switching," Smith said. 

Commentary on the Pew study I've found well worth considering: here's Edwin Lyngar at Salon on why people (younger ones especially) are walking away from the churches:

Pew does not try to analyze "causality" for this shift, but I have [a] theory: Christianity has been weaponized. It is used as a means to oppress and divide people, like atheists, gays, minority faiths and outspoken liberals. Rightwing politicians have transformed Christianity into a cudgel that they use to beat down progress. This makes me almost pity liberal Christians, who must now choose between their faith and their ideals. There are many Christians who believe in alleviating poverty and who support the rights of gays and other faiths. They have been shouted down and are now unwelcome in much of "American Christianity."  The Christianity created by the political right features a very white and muscular Jesus who loves "Guns, Grits and Gravy."  He’s the kind of Jesus who might steal your girlfriend or get in a bar fight.

And as long as the Religious Right — which is neither religious nor right — continues to tell Americans to vote with their Bibles, we should expect this decline in self-identified religiosity to continue.

As Candace Chellew-Hodge notes at Religion Dispatches, the Pew study finds that 41% of LGBT Americans are religiously unaffiliated, and at 48%, fewer than half identify as Christians. For Chellew-Hodge, that's a good thing, because why should a group of people constantly targeted and demeaned by many churches today try in any way to fit itself into the straitjacket provided for it by those churches, as a precondition for belonging? As Chellew-Hodge concludes, if churches were wise, they'd hear the Pew findings as a call to become what church is always called to be, and would see the gay folks standing outside their doors as a gift to them, exposing their failure to be church:

There is a opportunity here, for any faith community up to the task, to truly reform the Christian church into what it was meant to be in the first place—a community that accepts people where they are and offers them genuine love and support. . . . As Mark D. Jordan has powerfully offered, in these pages: "There is no gay church, there is only church—which is never reformed, only reforming."

At Commonweal, Grant Gallicho zeroes in on what should (but will probably not, given the tenor of the current crop of mitered men running the church in the U.S.) be the significance of the Pew report for American Catholics: 

For Catholics, these findings are another in a series of recent wake-up calls. For years conservatives have blamed the decline of Mainline Protestantism on alleged secular accommodation. Perhaps it's time to rethink that theory. The climate for religion the United States is  changing rapidly. Converts are not keeping up Catholic numbers. Young people are rapidly losing interest. Latinos probably won't save the U.S. church. There's no point in seeking comfort in margins of error, another tradition's greater losses, or anecdotes. Winter is coming. It may already be here.

For those who would like to imagine that the Pew findings spell the end of the considerable power the hard religious right exercises in American culture and American politics, Sarah Posner suggests thinking again:

Turnoutturnoutturnout. While the percentage of white evangelicals who voted in the 2014 midterms outstripped their share of the population as a whole, as Pew noted in its post-election analysis, "despite the continued growth of religious 'nones' within the population as a whole, the share of the electorate with no religious affiliation also is little changed compared with other recent midterms (12% in both 2010 and 2014)." Political organizing and turnout matter far more than numbers.

And Heather Digby Parton echoes that point in a Salon essay: 

Finally, and most importantly, the difference between the unaffiliated, atheist, secularist, "nones" — whatever you want to call them — and the Christian Right is the fact that the latter are a highly organized political machine that is controlled by professional political operatives like Ralph Reed, who runs the Faith and Freedom Coalition. It gets it's [sic] people to the polls.

The graphic is from the Pew Forum summary report linked at the head of this posting.

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