Over the past week, we’ve seen a lot of Christian leaders try to spin the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape numbers into something positive… which I’ve said is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The study showed that the percent of Americans who are “unaffiliated” with any religion has jumped from 16.1% in 2007 to 22.8% today. Meanwhile, every major Christian tradition is losing some ground.
In one example, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, claims this is a good thing because Christianity isn’t losing the die-hards… they’re losing the wishy-washy:
Bible Belt near-Christianity is teetering. I say let it fall. For much of the twentieth century, especially in the South and parts of the Midwest, one had to at least claim to be a Christian to be “normal.” During the Cold War, that meant distinguishing oneself from atheistic Communism. At other times, it has meant seeing churchgoing as a way to be seen as a good parent, a good neighbor, and a regular person. It took courage to be an atheist, because explicit unbelief meant social marginalization. Rising rates of secularization, along with individualism, means that those days are over — and good riddance to them.
We do not have more atheists in America. We have more honest atheists in America. Again, that’s good news…
Moore’s suggestion to Christians: Stay firm in your convictions because the churches that do so are doing just fine:
Now, what some will say is that the decline in self-identified Christians is a sign that the church should jettison its more unpopular teachings. And in our day, these teachings are almost always those dealing with pelvic autonomy. First of all, even if this were the key to success, we couldn’t — and wouldn’t — do it. Christianity isn’t a political party, dependent on crafting ideologies to suit the masses.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, took a similar approach, saying that “Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed.”
It’s tempting to agree with them, but the evidence just doesn’t support what they’re saying.
To be sure, people who might have called themselves Christians for cultural reasons are finally finding good reason to abandon that label. It’s losing its positive connotations. When you think Christian, you think anti-gay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-sex, and anti-doubt. If you’re not that religious, there’s far less of an added benefit to calling yourself Christian anymore.
But it’s not like the numbers are falling only with liberal Christian denominations.
The Southern Baptists — Moore’s denomination — have fallen from 6.7% of the population in 2007 to 5.3% today. Catholics have gone from 23.9% to 20.8%. Historically black churches: from 6.9% to 6.5%.
The 15 largest Protestant denominations are almost all dropping off:
More importantly, though, the age distribution of the largest Christians denominations show that young people want less and less to do with them. When it comes to people ages 18-29, compared to the next oldest group aged 30-49, Christians are losing the younger generation. Atheists and Agnostics, on the other hand, are gaining in popularity as we go younger:
If the trends continue in this direction, the best hope for conservative Christianity is that someone in those Creationist “research” labs finds a way to prevent death.
That said, I hope Moore gets his wish and that those denominations continue to stick with what they’re doing. When it comes to gay marriage, for example, they’ll probably continue fighting against it.
And when young people see those churches faltering on the easiest moral question of our time, they’ll want no part of it. Churches love to play the “ethics” card, arguing that religion — their religion — makes you a better person. That’s obviously not true when it’s the people without religion who are most strongly in support of marriage equality (and civil rights and bodily autonomy and sex education and science and do-you-get-the-idea-yet?).
If the churches realized that they could rationalize support for same-sex unions under the umbrella of love and marriage and stronger families, they might stop the bleeding. But they’re too caught up in their bigotry to figure that out. Throw in their ties with the Republican Party and its extremist candidates and it’s not surprising so many young people want nothing to do with them. That’s why we’ll continue siphoning away the younger generations. By the time they realize their mistake, it’ll be too late.
(Thanks to Richard for the link)