Front pages of major American newspapers this week featured the findings of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which released a survey of religious affiliation based on telephone interviews with more than 35,000 Americans titled “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” The results depict an extraordinarily fluid and diverse national religious life. Among its many findings, perhaps the most provocative was that more than a quarter of adult Americans have left their childhood faith in order to join another religion. If one includes shifts from one Protestant denomination to another, then 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations.
In an interview with USA Today, Pew Forum research fellow Gregory Smith sums up the findings simply: “Churn. Churn. Churn. The biggest news here is change.”
So was there any good news?
As noted by an online article in Christianity Today, “Non-Christian religions still constitute only about 5 percent of the American population…America is not going to become a minority Christian country anytime soon.”
So which group had the greatest net gain?
Time for the bad news. And this is where most news reports on the survey buried the lead, or simply missed it.
The religious group that posted that greatest gain was the “unaffiliated.”
According to the survey, sixteen percent of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith. It should be noted that among Americans ages 18-29, this number rises to one-in-four.
This makes the disenfranchised the country’s fourth-largest “religious group.” This up from the mere 5 to 8 percent of the 1980s as determined by the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center.
But let’s drill deeper into the report.
Of the fast-growing “unaffiliated,” only 1.6% is atheist, and 2.4% agnostic.
The remaining 12.1%?
“Nothing in particular.”
Let’s keep drilling.
According to the survey, and we are getting into the fine print here, within that 12.1% there are two groups that were fairly evenly divided: the “secular unaffiliated” at 6.3% (meaning those who say that religion is not important in their lives) and the “religious unaffiliated” at 5.8% (who say that religion is important to their lives).
Now let’s pull this together.
First, people in America have little allegiance to the faith of their childhood – translation: they are quick to abandon how they were raised (which may say something about how they were raised, but that is another conversation).
Second, the fastest-growing religious segment in America is the irreligious. I’m not overly distracted by the 5.8% who are unaffiliated, but say that religion is important to their lives. All that means is that they have enough of a religious memory to feel bad about distancing themselves from their heritage. To answer the religious question with “nothing in particular,” but then follow it up with, “but religion matters to me,” is disingenuous. They may not be philosophical atheists, but they are functioning ones.
But do not hear that as condemning. My point is that the vast majority of our culture is clearly open and searching, yet with a sizable and growing segment having already given up on the search.
Which means that the real headline is that this may be the last, best time to reach our nation for Christ.
James Emery White
For the Pew Forum report, go to http://religions.pewforum.org/.
“A Fluid Religious Life Is Seen In U.S., With Switches Common” by Neela Banerjee, The New York Times, Tuesday, February 26, 2008, pp. A1 and A12.
“Shifting borders of faith” by Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today, Tuesday, February 26, 2008, p. D1 and D2.
“The Problem with Counting Christianity” by Elesha Coffman, Christianity Today, posted 2/26/2008. To view, go to http://www/christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/februaryweb-only/109.23.0.html
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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