This is clearly the implication of the media reports following the latest Pew Research, “Nones on the Rise,” which shows a “steep decline” in the number of Americans who self-identify as Protestant, coupled with a “significant jump” in the number of those who now claim “no religion.” The secular devotees in the media seem hardly able to constrain their delight over the prospect that Christianity is disappearing in America.
Trying to spin this in such a way that the Christian faith appears culturally vital in the U.S. is a little like putting lipstick on a pig; but concluding that Christianity is losing and secularism is winning isn’t quite accurate either.
The Pew study asked 2973 adults nationwide: “What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?”
The number of Americans who identified themselves as Protestant was 48 percent, down from 53 percent in 2007. (In 1960, two-thirds of American adults identified themselves as Protestant.) Catholics showed only a modest 1 percent drop, while Orthodox (Christian) and Mormons remained steady and those claiming “other faith” experienced a 2 percent increase.
As to the other side—the religiously unaffiliated or so-called “Nones”—the picture is not quite as clear as the headlines suggest. First, the study’s category of “religiously unaffiliated” has in fact risen from 15.3 percent of U.S. adults in 2007 to 19.6 percent in 2012. This, when coupled with the apparent drop in the number of self-described Protestants, seems to suggest that apostasy is to blame. However, after carefully examining the research, I think the issue being identified has little to do with apostasy and more to do with religious ignorance and theological assimilation.
For starters and despite the media’s inference, the Nones are not necessarily atheist. In fact, only 2.4 percent of Americans identify themselves as atheists (another 3.3 percent claim to be agnostic). The largest category (13.9 percent) of the religiously unaffiliated are those who say they are “nothing in particular.” However, the report also makes clear that those in the nothing-in-particular category are by no means irreligious.
In fact, two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they believe in God and 55 percent describe themselves either as a “religious person” or as “spiritual but not religious.” Other Pew Research surveys found that 76 percent of Americans say that prayer is “an important part of their daily life,” a figure unchanged for the last twenty-five years.
The 2012 Pew study also points out that “The number of Americans who currently say religion is very important in their lives (58%) is little changed since 2007 (61%) and remains far higher than in Britain (17%), France (13%), Germany (21%) or Spain (22%).” Clearly, this growing category of those claiming “nothing in particular” when it comes to religion does not signal the triumph of secularism.
So what’s really going on here? As I said earlier, I think the issue being identified may be more closely related to the religious ignorance of some Christians and the assimilation of popular pagan ideas into Christianity.
Because the question only presents the Christian religion in terms of its three main traditions—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—I think there are a significant number of Protestant Christians who wouldn’t know (or choose) to identify themselves as such. For one, some evangelical Christians—especially those attending non-denominational churches—would be uncomfortable with the term Protestant because they associate being Protestant with liberal mainline denominations. In other words, they’re Protestant, they just don’t know it. I see similar confusion among some of these same congregations who actually reject the use of the Apostles’ Creed because it includes the word catholic, thinking (wrongly) that this is referring to the Roman Catholic Church.
To put it simply, too many of our brothers and sisters lack the basic knowledge of church history to properly understand many of the critical terms relative to their own faith and practice.
Theological assimilation, however, may be the larger problem. Those who claim “nothing in particular” when it comes to religion seem to be rejecting historic orthodox Christianity and its accompanying authority structures for a religion of their own design. The vast majority of these—as I pointed out earlier—say they believe in God, pray each day, and claim religion is “very important” to them. Thus they largely remain “religious.” However, one must ask: In what God do they believe, what religion are they practicing, and to whom are they praying if they don’t identify with any religion?
What I believe this report reveals is the growing assimilation of pagan (new-age and deistic) ideas, sprinkled with therapeutic self-interest, finally mingled with a childhood Christian tradition. The result is a highly personalized and therapeutic form of Christian faith and practice, i.e., culturalized Christianity. This is especially true among those under thirty, whose theology sociologist Christian Smith described as “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” It is among this demographic the church is suffering its highest levels of defection.
While it may make us feel better to think that the church is losing ground due to assault by secular forces; it is likely that apathy and heresy are bigger threats to Christianity in America than secularism. We have got to do a better job of transmitting the faith from one generation to the next by once again offering a Christ-centered (rather than “me-centered”) faith that is theologically robust, socially relevant, and culturally engaged if we want to arrest this trend.
© 2012 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the president of Battle for Truth and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on Battle for Truth and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit www.battlefortruth.org.