pew research center

Forget the Numbers. The Big Story Is that Religion Has Lost Social Influence.

Photo via Gregory A. Shemitz / RNS

Photo via Gregory A. Shemitz / RNS

“Religion plays a less important role in American life.” Or maybe, “Religion declines as powerful source of American public authority.”

I doubt those headlines would have garnered the attention the Pew Center recently received with its subtitle “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population.”

This is no criticism of Pew. It gets full credit for bringing religious demographics to the public’s attention. And the story of Christian decline is an obvious hook, as is the story of the rapidly growing number of “nones,” people with no particular religious affiliation.

But behind the story of Christian decline and the rise of “nones” is a long-standing debate about what religion theorists call “secularization,” the broad process by which religion gradually loses its social influence.

Author Phyllis Tickle Faces Death Just as She Enjoyed Life: ‘The Dying Is My Next Career’

Photo via Karen Pulfer Focht / RNS

Phyllis Tickle looks out the window in her home in Lucy, Tenn., just outside Memphis. Photo via Karen Pulfer Focht / RNS

Her once boundless energy starts to fail by midday. She started radiation treatment on May 21, mainly in an effort to forestall the possible collapse of her spine, which would leave her helpless and in intractable pain.

“That sounds a little formidable to me,” she says.

“I was never much for suffering.”

She goes on, her words carefully chosen. “Am I grateful for this? Not exactly. But I’m not unhappy about it. And that’s very difficult for people to understand.”

5 Ways Churches Inflicted Pain on Themselves

Photo via Robyn Mackenzie / Shutterstock.com

Photo via Robyn Mackenzie / Shutterstock.com

Let’s be clear: The much-heralded “decline of Christianity in America” isn’t about God losing faith in humankind.

It isn’t about losing our moral compass thanks to whatever you happen to loathe. It isn’t about fickle millennials. It isn’t about zigging trendy or zagging traditional.

In fact, I would argue that Christianity isn’t in trouble at all. Churches are in trouble. Denominations are in trouble. Religious institutions like seminaries are in trouble. Professional church leaders are in trouble.

But churches can’t hold God hostage. 

More Than Numbers: Beyond American Christianity's 'Crisis'

katarinag / Shutterstock.com

katarinag / Shutterstock.com

It’s important to listen to the stories told through the numbers as well as the untold stories. As a non-American, it is surprising to hear my brothers and sisters throw out phrases like, “the church is in decline,” when what you are referring to is the church in America. The global church is alive and well and thriving in many areas of the world, and what joy it would be to allow their voices to speak into the congregations of the global North. Many of the polarizing, divisive issues in the American church, such as gay marriage, abortion, and the death penalty, are being discussed by the global church outside the context of the binary lenses of the American left and right. These outside voices can serve to soften the rhetoric hurled by each side, and also give perspective to the priority placed on them in light of the problems faced by the global South.

 

Christians Lose Ground, ‘Nones’ Soar in New Portrait of U.S. Religion

St Roch Church in the Staten Island borough of New York. Photo via Gregory A. Shemitz / RNS

The United States is a significantly less Christian country than it was seven years ago.

That’s the top finding – one that will ricochet through American faith, culture, and politics – in the Pew Research Center’s newest report, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” released May 12.

This trend “is big, it’s broad, and it’s everywhere,” said Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religion research.

Freedom of the Press Trumps Respect for Religion in a New Survey

Screenshot of Charlie Hebdo cover illustration. Image via RNS.

Screenshot of Charlie Hebdo cover illustration. Image via RNS.

Most Americans who know about the deadly attack on the Paris headquarters of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine say it’s OK that the weekly featured cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center shows 76 percent of Americans know of the Jan. 7 attack, and among this group 60 percent of Americans support the magazine’s right to publish these controversial images, while 28 percent disapprove.

However, one in four Americans overall offered no opinion because, they said, they had not heard about the violent attack where 10 artists and writers and two policemen were murdered.

The survey of 1,003 U.S. adults was conducted Jan. 22-25, two weeks after the attack. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percentage points in the portion of the report that deals only with those who said they had heard about the incident.

The survey looked more closely to see how members of this group explained their views.

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.

Catholic Church Losing Ground in Latin America

Pope Francis in his popemobile in Brazil for the re-enactment of the Way of the Cross. Photo via Robson Coehlo/RNS

In just one generation, Latin America has seen the number of people who identify themselves as Catholic plummet, with more people becoming Protestant or dropping religion altogether, a new report shows.

The shift is dramatic for a region that has long been a bastion of Catholicism. With more than 425 million Catholics, Latin America accounts for nearly 40 percent of the global Catholic population. Through the 1960s, at least 90 percent of Latin Americans were Catholic, and 84 percent of people surveyed recently by the Pew Research Center said they were raised Catholic.

But the report released Nov. 13 found that only 69 percent of Latin Americans still consider themselves Catholic, with more people switching to more conservative Protestant churches (19 percent) or describing themselves as agnostic or religiously unaffiliated (8 percent).

Even last year’s election of an Argentine as pope to head the Catholic Church has led to conflicting feelings in Latin America.

“While it is too soon to know whether (Pope) Francis can stop or reverse the church’s losses in the region, the new survey finds that people who are currently Catholic overwhelmingly view Francis favorably and consider his papacy a major change for the church,” the report said. “But former Catholics are more skeptical about Pope Francis. Only in Argentina and Uruguay do majorities of ex-Catholics express a favorable view of the pope.”

Online, Offline Faith Go Hand in Hand

Christ Fellowship in McKinney, Texas, offers a Facebook page, online sermons, and live chats . Photo via Christ Fellowship/RNS.

God bless online media. Almost half of U.S. adults (46 percent) say they saw someone sharing “something about their faith” on the Internet in the last week.

And one in five (20 percent) say they were part of the Internet spiritual action on social networking sites and apps — sharing their beliefs on Facebook, asking for prayer on Twitter, mentioning in a post that they went to church.

“The sheer number of people who have seen faith discussed online is pretty striking,” said Greg Smith, associate director of religion research for Pew Research Center.

Megachurch pastors have mega-followings online. Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church streams his Houston services online. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has 1.8 million likes on his Facebook page. And Pope Francis has more than 4.6 million English-language followers, chiefly American, for his @Pontifex Twitter feed.

Embattled Evangelicals: ‘War on Religion’ is Aimed at Us

Concerns about Religion in Society graphic courtesy of Tim Duffy, Public Religion Research Institute/RNS.

These are anxious times for white evangelicals, according to two new surveys.

At 20 percent of U.S. adults, they are statistically neck-and-neck with the “nones” — people who claim no religious brand. “Nones” now tally up to 19 percent in the 2014 American Values Survey, said Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, which released the survey Sept. 23.

Evangelicals, said Jones, are on “the losing side of the culture wars, such as gay marriage, and they see that their share (of society) is shrinking and aging, adding to their sense of being embattled.”

“They can no longer say confidently they speak for all people of faith.”

Perhaps for that reason, white evangelicals, more than any other religious group, worry that the government will interfere with their religious liberty.

The survey asked which concerned people more: The government interfering with their ability to “freely practice their religion” or “religious groups trying to pass laws that force their beliefs on others.”

The overall answer was a tie — 46 percent of Americans overall for each viewpoint. But white evangelicals were significantly  more worried about government interference (66 percent) than any other group.

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