A new Pew Research Center study of America's evolving religious demographic asserts that nearly 20 percent of Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, while historically dominant Protestants are now under 50 percent. The headlines have understandably cited the study as proof of America's secularization.
The truth is probably more complicated, more interesting, and a little less disturbing to religious America. Two-thirds of the religiously unaffiliated still believe in God, and 20 percent of them pray daily. A significant minority among them even regularly attend formal worship. Atheists and agnostics, although purportedly growing in numbers, still number only 6 percent of the total population. Over 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God. Seventy-six percent of Americans according to Pew say prayer is very important, the same who said so 25 years ago. Seventy-six percent of Americans, including most unaffiliated, believe churches and religion strengthen morality. Nearly 60 percent say religion is very important, similar to Pew's 2007 study.
Perhaps most importantly, and largely unremarked, is that the numbers of Americans who regularly attend worship is still hovering around 40 percent, a figure that has remained remarkably the same for over 80 years. About 30 percent, according to Pew, never or seldom attend.
So what the Pew study may actually reveal primarily is the ongoing disaffection with denominational loyalties, most especially by Mainline Protestants. Catholics and evangelicals seem mostly to be retaining their overall market share. But once dominant Mainline Protestants are now in their fifth decade of continuous membership decline, and the spiral continues.
The World War II generation was Mainline Protestantism's last stalwart generation, and they crowded Mainline churches in the 1950s. Sturdy octogenarians still sit in otherwise empty pews and disproportionately fill leadership positions in local Mainline congregations. But their Baby Boomer children began the exodus from the Mainline. And subsequent generations are virtual strangers to Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches. As Pew seems to confirm, Baby Boomers and others who once may have cited the denomination of their parents' or childhood as their religious affiliation, while rarely if ever attending church, increasingly no longer bother to profess affiliation as memories grow dim and less meaningful. But they mostly still pray and regard themselves as religious.
This trend of religious nonaffiliation is compounded a bit by the collapse of denominational loyalty by even active Christians. Pew evidently tried in its poll to capture all evangelicals and other religious believers related to Protestant traditions under the Protestant category. But more and more church goers attending nondenominational churches, often gathering in theaters or public auditoriums, no longer identify themselves as Protestants. A few but growing number don't even identify as Christian, preferring other quirky categories such as "Christ-follower." Capturing these roving spiritual seekers who may not even call their regular worship "church" must have been a challenge for Pew.
As conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat describes in his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Americans as a whole are not becoming less religious or more secular. Unmoored from clear denominational traditions, we are becoming theologically more individualistic and heterodox. Pew seems to confirm Douthat's thesis. But as Alexis de Tocqueville observed 180 years ago, Americans were never strong on theology. And even then preachers typically focused on morals rather than dogma. Heresies have always been rampant.
As evinced by thousands of brewing denominations that cascade across American history, American religion has never been very fixed. It has always been entrepreneurial and a marketplace of its own, with religious consumers, for better or worse, rewarding spiritually vital places of worship while shunning the turgid. The Mainline Protestant consensus that sort of prevailed for parts of the 19th and 20th centuries was always evolving. Rising Methodists and Baptists, among others, displaced more established Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians in the early 19th century. Reformers and schismatics broke even from the newer churches throughout the 19th century, many of them eventually forming the seedbed of the new evangelical movement in the 20th century. They were joined by Pentecostalism's emergence in the early 20th century.
Mainline Protestant seminaries began to succumb to liberalism in the 1890s or even before, and liberalism was fully enthroned there by the 1920s. But liberal discomfort with evangelism and traditional morals didn't begin to suffocate Mainline Protestantism as a whole until the 1960s, by which time orthodox clergy among their ranks were a besieged minority. Modern evangelical churches, once considered a subculture, began to swell after World War II, gaining further legitimacy thanks to Billy Graham's popularity and the creation of thoughtful journals like Christianity Today.
Evangelicals became America's largest demographic in recent years. The Pew study shows their once dramatic growth, at least among white Anglos, has perhaps stalled. It perhaps persists among some ethnics groups, especially Hispanics.
The myth that America was once a solidly Christian and church going nation that only recently has secularized is widely believed by religious and secular alike. But the 40 percent of Americans who've regularly across the last 80 years at least claimed they attend church regularly is almost certainly higher than church going was in the 19th century, which itself was likely higher than the 18th century, as a footnote in the Pew study briefly admits.
If America now today seems more secular, it is because cultural elites 100 years ago, including college presidents and faculty, publishers and newspaper editors, were likely to be churchmen. Fifty years ago, cultural elites were less churchy but remained at least respectful of religion. Today's cultural elites, joined by popular entertainment and broadcast journalism, clustered in coastal cities or in university towns in between, are neither respectful nor even very aware of religious America. Almost certainly the 6 percent of Americans whom Pew reports are atheist or agnostic are disproportionately represented within their ranks.
Of most concern to religious America is Pew's finding that nearly 30 percent of Americans under 30 profess no religious affiliation. But Pew seemingly does not compare this number to previous years. More interesting would be to examine the rate over time of young people's church attendance or participation in other spiritual groups. Younger Americans now are more inclined to attend non-denominational churches or spiritual groups.
And this Pew study apparently did not try to gauge theological beliefs. How many Americans today versus previous years believe in traditional Christian doctrines about the afterlife, Christ's deity, the Virgin Birth or bodily resurrection? Other polls in recent years have actually shown increasing belief in Christian doctrine, even among the religiously non-practicing, as liberal churches have declined. Purportedly "post-modern" Americans are more open to the miraculous than were yesterday's Enlightenment-based rationalists.
In some ways, the Pew study raises more questions than it answers. But the wide discussion it provoked itself proves that religion remains an extremely dynamic force in America.