nones

Why Are Religious Survey Results So Confusing?

A crowd recites the Pledge of Allegiance at a Kerry campaign rally in 2004. Photo via American Spirit via Shutterstock/RNS.

Reading religion surveys can seem like confronting the Tower of Babel: stacked questions, confusing terms, unscientific methodology.

It gets even crazier when results are contradictory. How does that happen?

Some surveys lean like the Tower of Pisa

The Pledge of Allegiance is a perfect example.

There’s almost always a flap over how many Americans do — or don’t — want the words “under God” kicked out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Indeed, on Nov. 19 a court in Monmouth, N.J., will hear the case of the American Humanist Association battling the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District to have schools edit out mention of God.

The humanists claim 34 percent of Americans agree with their view. But, wait. What about a survey conducted earlier this year by LifeWay Research, a Christian research agency? It found that only 8 percent would cut God from the Pledge.

Why four times the difference? Look to the poll language.

LifeWay asked: “Should the words ‘under God’ be removed from or remain in the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America?” That’s a straight-up question with no preface.

The humanists’ survey, however, began with a bit of pointed Pledge history — before getting to the (loaded) question:

“For its first 62 years, the Pledge of Allegiance did not include the phrase ‘under God.’ During the Cold War, in 1954, the phrase ‘one nation, indivisible … ‘ was changed to read ‘one nation, under God, indivisible … ‘. Some people feel this phrase in our national pledge should focus on unity rather than religion.

Secularism Grows as More U.S. Christians Turn ‘Churchless’

“Unchurched Adults Are More Likely To Be…,” graphic courtesy of Barna Group/RNS.

If you’re dismayed that one in five Americans (20 percent) are “nones” — people who claim no particular religious identity — brace yourself.

How does 38 percent sound?

That’s what religion researcher David Kinnaman calculates when he adds “the unchurched, the never-churched and the skeptics” to the nones.

He calls his new category “churchless,” the same title Kinnaman has given his new book. By his count, roughly four in 10 people living in the continental United States are actually “post-Christian” and “essentially secular in belief and practice.”

If asked, the “churchless” would likely check the “Christian” box on a survey, even though they may not have darkened the door of a church in years.

Kinnaman, president of the California-based Barna Group, slides them into this new category based on 15 measures of identity, belief and practice in more than 23,000 interviews in 20 surveys.

The research looked at church worship attendance and participation, views about the Bible, God and Jesus, and more to see whether folks were actually tied to Christian life in a meaningful way or tied more by habit or personal history.

The Evangelical Renaissance Is Over

A similar cycle occurred in the political arena, which (fairly or not) shaped popular impressions of American evangelicalism more than megachurches or The Purpose Driven Life. One can thank Jerry Falwell for this. Yet without a Carter to oppose, Falwell never would have received so much air time. The political turn in modern American evangelicalism was a bipartisan phenomenon, as the electoral strategies of Barack Obama and, before him, Bill Clinton, demonstrated. Each protected his right flank by cultivating ties with progressive evangelicals, such as Tony Campolo or Jim Wallis.

Jesus Is A None: 5 Things Christians Need To Know About The "Nones"

The first time I heard the phrase “Nones” was from my friend Jim Wallis, who wrote about the release of a Pew Forum study documenting the growing number of people who responded “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation. As I wrote in a response back then, “Calling people ‘Nones’ is a mistake.” I’m even more convinced of this now — and I think it’s especially a mistake for Christians to adopt this moniker. Here’s why:

One Year In: The Joyful Surprise of Pope Francis

Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 5, giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 5, giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Today the world celebrates Pope Francis’ first year. Notice I didn’t say the church is celebrating, but the world. The pope has graced the covers of every magazine from TIME to Rolling Stone over the past year. People all over the world are delighted by the breath of fresh air he has brought. His popularity has moved beyond Catholics to Christians of all kinds, believers from other faith traditions, agnostics, and the “nones,” who are very drawn to this pope who emphasizes love and simple living.

But the pope said last week that he is not a “ superman” and does not want to be a celebrity. He is just trying to talk and live like Jesus, a point he makes repeatedly to shrug off his media darling standing. From the moment he took the name Francis, he made clear his, and thus the church’s priorities: the poor, peace, and the creation. Francis is now challenging the most powerful people and places in the world, as well as a popular culture that mostly asks how we can serve ourselves.

Pope Francis is right: it is not about him; it’s about the Christ he follows. Everything Francis is saying and doing is aimed at pressing this question: Are Christians going to follow Jesus or not? That should be the question on the first anniversary of this new pope. Are we Christians ready and willing to follow Jesus? How can we then serve the world?

Behind the Numbers: Religious 'Nones' May Not Be Who You Think They Are

Atheists and unbelievers gathered March 24, 2012 on the National Mall for the Reason Rally. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner.

In recent surveys, the religious “nones” — as in, “none of the above” — appear to lead in the faith marketplace. In fact, “none” could soon be the dominant label U.S. adults pick when asked to describe their religious identity.

But they may not be who you think they are. Today, “nones” include many more unbranded believers than atheists, and an increasingly diverse racial and ethnic mix.

And, researchers say, this is already making nones’ attitudes and opinions less predictably liberal on social issues.

What If I'm Not Sure What I Believe?

Close-up of hands, Diego Cervo / Shutterstock.com

Close-up of hands, Diego Cervo / Shutterstock.com

I get asked questions sometimes that I feel are useful for a larger audience to consider and discuss. One such question was submitted to me by a reader a while back, which echoes the sentiments within many other similar questions I’ve received. Here’s the essence at the heart of those questions.

What do I do if I’m not sure what I believe?

First of all, don’t freak out. Most of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament is about a priest suffering a crisis of faith. And though some argue it was more a fulfillment of prophecy (quoting a psalm) rather than a personal cry of distress, it’s hard not to feel Jesus’ own existential suffering when he cries out from the cross for a God who seems to be missing.

The Power of None

Empty seats, LU HUANFENG / Shutterstock.com

Empty seats, LU HUANFENG / Shutterstock.com

A couple years ago, a survey found that one in five Americans don’t identify with any religion. For Americans under 30, the number was far higher – more like one third. This report is being cited constantly throughout the religious-nonprofit world. In many quarters, there seems to be a deep sense of shock at the decline in religious membership.

Me? I’m not surprised at all. What does surprise me is our failure to see that affiliation with a traditional, God-centered religion is no longer the primary way that many Americans express their deeply rooted need for faith. We humans are relentlessly religious animals, and post-modern America is no exception. We’re just embracing a different kind of faith.

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