Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Don't Believe the Cover

The Newsweek cover this week claims to describe "The Decine and Fall of Christian America." I would find this very interesting if I were convinced it is actually happening. There are many aspects of "Christian America" that deserve to decline and fall, so part of me hoped that the article would be about that. But it's not, it's about the increase of "secular mindsets" and things that have been around for years. The problem is the article starts from a faulty (or at least incomplete) reading of data and builds a house of cards on that. It is built on the premise that people are changing their beliefs about God, when what's happening is they're changing what box they check for overall affiliation -- they are not significantly changing behavior.

Here is the misleading paragraph, early in the story (and one of the few parts with actual relevant numbers):

According to the American Religious Identification Survey that got Mohler's attention, the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent. The Jewish population is 1.2 percent; the Muslim, 0.6 percent. A separate Pew Forum poll echoed the ARIS finding, reporting that the percentage of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith has doubled in recent years, to 16 percent; in terms of voting, this group grew from 5 percent in 1988 to 12 percent in 2008—roughly the same percentage of the electorate as African-Americans. (Seventy-five percent of unaffiliated voters chose Barack Obama, a Christian.) Meanwhile, the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million. (That is about double the number of, say, Episcopalians in the United States.)

Did you notice how in the second half of the paragraph there's a shift from percentages to numbers? I hunted down some of the actual numbers to check and, you know, Rodney Stark is right: the numbers that are actually growing significantly are mostly "no affiliation" people, not really atheists, which are such a small relatively constant percentage that they don't have much of an affect on the big picture (apparently they just buy their militant-atheist canon books a lot). But, look at Stark's book, when you ask these no affiliation people what they believe you find pretty similar numbers to the mainstream of Christianity! (Maybe this points out that "fuzziness" extends into Christianity, but it does not imply that there's a major sociological shift going on.) These people pray, they believe in God, they just haven't gone to any church for years and don't see its relevance or purpose. These people have been like this for a long time, only now they're changing the box they check from "Christian" to "no affiliation."
The funny thing is, articles like this one are powerful; if they repeat a distortion enough times people start to believe it. Quick, take a guess, what's the percentage of atheists in France? A.) 30% B.) 50% C.) 70% ?
Oops, I wrote that question poorly, because, France is actually only 14% atheist. And most of the other European countries aren't even in the double digits.
So that's where the real challenge is, not convincing people that there's a God, or even telling them about Jesus, they know, but think it doesn't change things for them. I think the proof is in the pudding, with evidence: showing how Jesus can change lives and communities, how it matters beyond just "checking off a box." The demographic shift is not from belief to non-belief: it's from community structure to lack of structure (for those who are changing to "no affiliation" at least). And there are ways the Spirit can move in that if we listen to the true data, not to someone else's facile interpretation of it.
PS: And if "Christian America" is really declining and becomes a minority, then bully for that and Thy will be done. Read Stanley Hauerwas' Resident Aliens for the reasons why. A "Christian America" that follows Christ would look very, very different in any case.

1 comment:

nach said...

From the article: "Roughly put, the Christian narrative is the story of humankind as chronicled in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—the drama of creation, fall and redemption. The orthodox tend to try to live their lives in accordance with the general behavioral principles of the Bible (or at least the principles they find there of which they approve) and anticipate the ultimate judgment of God—a judgment that could well determine whether they spend eternity in heaven or in hell."

Thank God this idea is dying.