ISI has published a piece adapted from Rodney Stark’s new book, The Triumph of Faith, that argues that religion is not only growing globally (an uncontroversial assertion that we’ve noted in these pages before), but that it is still relatively robust in the United States as well, a much more contentious claim. Stark thinks the pessimism among religious leaders about the secularization of America isn’t supported by history or data. Here he is on the widely discussed Pew data showing an increase over the past couple of decades in the number of “nones,” Americans who say they have no religious affiliation:
But what this [increase] means is not so obvious, for, during this same period, church attendance did not decline and the number of atheists did not increase. Indeed, the percentage of atheists in America has stayed steady at about 4 percent since a question about belief in God was first asked in 1944. In addition, except for atheists, most of the other “nones” are religious in the sense that they pray (some pray very often) and believe in angels, in heaven, and even in ghosts. Some are also rather deeply involved in “New Age” mysticisms.
So who are these “nones,” and why is their number increasing—if it is? Back in 1990 most Americans who seldom or never attended church still claimed a religious affiliation when asked to do so. Today, when asked their religious preference, instead of saying Methodist or Catholic, now a larger proportion of nonattenders say “none,” by which most seem to mean “no actual membership.” The entire change has taken place within the nonattending group, and the nonattending group has not grown.
In other words, Americans who didn’t attend church but identified as a particular denomination are now instead saying they are unaffiliated. For Stark, this is evidence that the secularization worries are overblown—these people were only nominally religious anyway, so their defection doesn’t really change the number of people who are “actually” religious or irreligious. Moreover, lower church attendance among young Americans isn’t alarming, because young people always go to church less and tend to come back as they “get married and have children.” Add in the data that church attendance has been stable for the past 40 years and that the nones still pray and believe in things like angels or ghosts, and things don’t look so bad.
Nominal Christian affiliation, however, matters. Even for those who don’t go to church, a decision to identify as Christian in responding to polls means something. A connection, however cultural or tenuous, to a faith is capable of being deepened. A person who calls herself Presbyterian but never goes to church might, at some point later in life, find it easier or more natural to start attending a local Presbyterian service than someone who has severed all affiliation—or never had an affiliation to begin with. The jump from nominal to serious is a different kind of jump than from unaffiliated to serious.
Moreover, nominal Christian affiliation creates a cultural “buffer” space between devout believers and the unaffiliated. Here’s Ed Stetzer on this point, h/t Michael Brendan Dougherty:
In many ways, nominal believers who identified as Christians but were generally unengaged in church provided a “cultural cushion” for Christians. Nominals worked as a restraint on the advance of secularism. Even though they did not order their lives around Christian beliefs, nominals saw themselves on the same “team” as convictional Christians, who did order their lives around their religious faith, so nominal Christians tended to join with the more religious Christians in broader cultural decisions.
As many nominals have become the religiously unaffiliated, they identify less with convictional believers.
The switch from “affiliated but non-church going” to “unaffiliated” is therefore a very big deal. It may not portend a collapse of the backbone of American Christianity, but it does mean that a cultural space that kept Christianity culturally powerful and put Christian belief within plausibility framework of some Americans is eroding.
And, of course, when you look at the trends to religious reversion or even conversion for younger Americans as they start families, the obvious issue is that millennial family formation patterns don’t mirror exactly those of previous generations. If family formation plays a big role in keeping church attendance stable over time, a lot rides on whether millennials (and their children) ultimately marry and have children at high enough rates to perpetuate that pattern. As things currently stand, we don’t know if that will be the case. Of course, aging might also help inspire reversion or conversion in another way: As one gets older, one becomes more aware of mortality, and might turn to faith as a result. This seems to be the view of Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport, who predicts Baby Boomers will become more religious in coming years. So a lot rides, too, on whether that kind of late life aging can inspire reversion and conversion even among the unmarried or childless.
As for the perduring spirituality of the “nones”—the belief, for instance, in ghosts—here too there is a lot of uncertainty. Ross Douthat:
One of the big religious questions going forward is whether the large swathe of people who have drifted from traditional faith but remain dissatisfied (for excellent reasons!) with strict neo-Darwinian materialism constitute a major market for religious entrepreneurs. Is there a version of theologically-liberal Christianity that could actually bring these drifters back to church and keep them in the pews? Is there some new synthesis –pantheist, deist, syncretistic — that could seem plausible and nourishing and intellectually satisfying enough to plan an actual new religion in “spiritual, but not religious” territory? Is there enough residual Christian orthodoxy knocking around in the West’s cultural subconscious to make a revival or Great Awakening not only possible but likely? Etc.
Douthat says his “suspicion” is that something like this will be the case, but that there are other reasons to think it might not—that the unaffiliated might find ways of integrating their spiritual beliefs or experiences into a broadly secular life. Again, we don’t know yet.
Stark’s essay is part of a large book, so he may deal with these and other objections there. But, as far as the piece itself goes, the case he makes that all the furor over American secularization is merely a “false alarm” does not quite convince.