Trinity College released the latest slice of ARIS findings on Thursday, and the news wasn’t good.
Done in 1990 with more than 113,000 people and again in 2008 with more than 54,000 people, the American Religious Identification Survey is one of the largest demographic polls in history, and perhaps the largest survey of American religiosity to date.
Here is the suggested headline: Gen X-ers, as they age, are bucking all conventional wisdom and not returning to the religious fold.
Gen X people, born between 1965 and 1972, are now 40 to 47 years old. They are the parents of today’s middle- and high-school children.
Why is this news? Earlier reports from the ARIS study had already informed us of the alarming increase in “nones” nearly doubling from 8 percent to 15 percent. This made those who claim no religion at all the third largest defined constituency in the United States, eclipsed only by Catholics and Baptists. Further, “nones” were the only religious bloc to rise in percentage in every single state, thus constituting the only true national trend.
As the earlier ARIS report concluded, “the challenge to Christianity ... does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.” Barry Kosmin, co-researcher for the survey, warns against blaming secularism for driving up the percentage of Americans who say they have no religion. “These people aren’t secularized. They’re not thinking about religion and rejecting it; they’re not thinking about it at all.”
So again, what’s new?
One thing: “The ARIS study seems to challenge what has been a core truth of American demographics: That people become more politically conservative and religiously affiliated as they age.”
“Everything we find here,” reflects Barry Kosmin, an author of the study, “is counterintuitive.”
Okay, but that’s still not the real story. Drilling deeper into the findings reveals two interesting dynamics:
First, the negative numbers are coming largely from the falling away of hundreds of thousands of Catholics. Mainline Protestants aren’t doing well, either. In other words, there’s a big loss in the “middle” of things.
Which brings up the second dynamic worth noting.
The faith groups that did see growth were the “poles,” meaning the far ends of the religious spectrum. The ones with fire in their belly. On one end are the aforementioned “nones,” and on the other, the largely conservative and mostly evangelical non-denominational groups.
Both ends grew to represent about 16 percent, respectively, of the population.
And it is precisely these “deeper” findings that betray the actual headline. It’s not that Gen X-ers are not becoming more religious as they grow older. That bit of conventional wisdom was doomed to fall apart sooner or later in light of the deeply secular culture taking hold of American life.
The real headline is that lukewarm religion holds little value in the midst of a settling secularism. What grips a conscience is anything gripping. If a worldview or faith lacks conviction, passion, or life change, then it seems both privately and socially irrelevant.
This means that the only kind of voice that will arrest the attention of the world will be prophetic in nature, clear in its message, substantive in its content, and bold in its challenge.
In other words, dangerously close to the gospel Jesus unleashed on to the world and carried forward by His early followers as chronicled in the New Testament.
As the leaders in Thessalonica charged the apostle Paul and company, “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here” (Acts 17:6, NIV).
So while those around us may be losing their religion, the good news is that it may remind us to find something we’ve lost as well.
James Emery White
“Huge religion survey: Gen X-ers less Christian, less Republican,” Michelle Boorstein, Washington Post, May 31, 2012. Read online.
For the latest report, “The Transformation of Generation X: Shifts in Religious and Political Self-Identification, 1990-2008” by Barry A. Kosmin & Juhem Navarro-River. Read online.
Click here for a précis on the earlier ARIS findings, along with links to the full survey.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.