Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sunday Reflections for March 15, 2009: "More signs of the end of religion as we know it"

“None.” That’s the identifying label for people in the fastest growing religious group in the country. This is one result from the massive (over 50,000 responses) American Religious Identity Survey (ARIS) 2008 released this week by Trinity College in Connecticut. This is the third such survey, with previous ones done in 1990 and 2001.

Now making up 15% of the population, the “no religion” group is the only one that increased in size in every state and now ranks third behind only Roman Catholics and Baptists. If those who didn’t know or refused to answer the question were added to this group, it would rise to second place. The number of those declining any religious identity has doubled since the first survey in 1990.

The ARIS survey puts hard numbers to trends that have been growing increasingly obvious. Americans’ religious affiliations are changing in a hurry. Some examples:
  • The number of white Catholics is declining, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. Nationally, however, Catholic membership remains basically steady because of the growing Hispanic population, particularly in the Southwest.
  • Evangelical denominations, like Baptists, seem to be declining in favor of non-denominational churches.
  • Mainline church memberships (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.) continue to be in near freefall, declining by a third in less than twenty years.
  • In fact, in the time since the first survey no denomination or religion grew by more than half a percentage point. As a result, the number of those identifying themselves in some way as Christian fell from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008, with the resulting movement almost entirely to the “no religion” category.

Another interesting result is that the only Christian identities showing any significant increase are those that are the vaguest. Among these are responses like “Christian”, “non-denominational Christian”, and “Evangelical/Born Again.” Groups often thought to be growing (Assemblies of God, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses) actually just held steady, thus growing only relative to other declining religious groups.

And finally, closer to home, Lutherans (of whatever brand) declined by 25% from the 1990 to 2008. This is a little better than the average for mainline denominations but is nonetheless an astonishing drop for such a short period. Some of this decline seems to be among those who had already ceased being actual church members but still identified themselves as Lutheran. Even now the survey reports more Lutherans than are actually on church membership rolls. We might guess that many of these have switched to calling themselves “Christian” or “Protestant”, and some certainly are saying “none of the above.” In any case, this fits with a 30-year decline in official Lutheran denominational statistics.

ARIS indentifies some causes for these trends. The significant drop in Roman Catholics in New England is certainly due in part to the clergy sex abuse scandals. This is very similar to what happened in Ireland. Also, the Northeast now has the largest number without a religious identity (displacing the Pacific Northwest from that spot). ARIS speculates that the drop in those identifying as Christian in New England and elsewhere may be because that label is increasingly identified with conservative political and social views. It has been true for some time that when “Christian” is added to “radio, music, books, lifestyle”, etc. it almost always means evangelical or fundamentalist.

For a number of years, a common view was that formerly “establishment” or mainline Christian denominations were losing members to more conservative evangelical churches. While true in part, this survey confirms that this is only one aspect of a larger trend away from organized religion altogether.

Mainline churches are straddling a shrinking middle ground which, like a fault line, is moving in opposite directions. Increasingly their members either join more conservative churches or stop participating in church at all. These Protestant churches, with their roots in the Reformation, are finding it more and more difficult to make the case for their moderate theology and traditional worship. They’re viewed as too modern for some and not modern (or postmodern) enough for others. And ARIS shows something similar is happening in Catholicism.

For the Protestant mainline these changes are coming with breathtaking speed. Congregations are closing by the hundreds each year. Denominational administrative offices go through successive rounds of budget cuts and layoffs. The current economic upheaval will undoubtedly cause more staff and program trimming in congregations and church bureaucracies. And the traditional model of a highly (and expensively) educated fulltime clergy will likely soon be unsustainable, as rising student debt loads collide with stagnant or declining clergy salaries.

Remarkably little of this is being discussed publicly in these churches, though it is the frequent topic of private conversation among clergy and church leaders. For the moment, the response has been piecemeal and ad hoc, shrinking and closing existing institutions as necessary.

This certainly won’t work indefinitely. The challenge now is to have the courage to honestly admit the new realities. Then, and only then, can the church take up the necessary task of thinking creatively how to reimagine itself for this new time when, for more and more people, religion has ceased to be a necessary or even meaningful measure of one’s identity.

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