Why Are Christian Numbers Dropping?

May 25, 2015

By David Niose

America continues to trend secular. According to a recently released Pew study, almost one in four Americans, 23 percent, now identify as religiously unaffiliated, up from just 16 percent in 2007. This continues a shift that began in the early 1990s, when the percentage of religiously unaffiliated was in single digits. The rise of these “Nones” comes mainly at the expense of Christianity, which saw a drop from about 78 percent to 70 percent in the last eight years.

In trying to explain the swing toward secularity, the most common hypothesis is one that links the trend to politics, particularly the high-visibility political engagement of the religious right. A New York Times article about the Pew survey, for example, cited “the politicization of religion by American conservatives” as a key reason for the decline in Christian affiliation. Similarly, in an NPR interview in 2013, Harvard professor Robert Putnam explained the rise of Nones as a political reflex: “These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”

No matter what you think of this “political” explanation of the Nones, it’s interesting that it ignores the most obvious reason for abandoning a religion. That is, isn’t it quite possible that many are leaving Christianity simply because they don’t really believe it anymore?

In analyzing shifts in religious demographics, pundits and experts sometimes overlook the obvious: people usually identify with a religion because they accept its doctrines. To be sure, cultural factors also have great weight (people tend to believe and identify with the religion of their families, for example), but those who attribute the growth of religious disaffiliation to politics, without considering the basic notion of belief, are missing the elephant in the room.

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11 comments on “Why Are Christian Numbers Dropping?

  • Christianity is not merely a belief that God exists, but rather is a lengthy and detailed set of beliefs. The implausible idea of revelation—that God, the creator of the universe, spoke to ancient men—is a foundational concept in Christianity, before even reaching other unlikely notions such as original sin, immaculate conception, virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and miracles. Though the image of Christianity is one of an enduring and almost timeless church, the fragility of its doctrines make it more vulnerable to advancing modernity than many realize. The theology is akin to a house of cards: if one rejects any of its numerous underlying concepts, the entire structure collapses.

    I’m not sure that I would go along with that. Theology is less threatened by modernity than enriched and informed by it. Our understanding of the faith is very different now to what it was 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 1000 years ago; and that process continues.

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  • Our understanding of the faith is very different now to what it was 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 1000 years ago; and that process continues.

    That seems to be so particularly in areas where faith is most fizzling away. Indeed, it seems to be a significant part of the process of reasserting individual moral authorship and starting a more responsible engagement with the world.

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  • 4
    Cairsley says:

    Even one hundred years ago, before quantum mechanics had been developed to its current state, one could still seriously argue that there needed to be some supreme, or at least superior, being that acted in some way to bring the cosmos into existence, for it was thought that something could not come from nothing. That is, one could still argue at least for some kind of deism. But since then theoretical physicists, working on the findings of quantum mechanical experiments, have found that nothing is not as simple and certainly not as stable as had previously been assumed, and that subatomic particles of energy like the one from which our own universe is now understood to have arisen are passing in and out of existence all the time, even where there is nothing. Although there is much in this work that is still not yet understood, it is already clear that no supreme or supernatural or even just superior being needs to be posited to account for the coming into existence of the universe. Theology has thus lost its last leg and can stand no longer among the genuine intellectual disciplines, and religious faith, no matter how much it has been intellectualized, can now be regarded only as an outmoded way of thinking no better than a superstition. Religion can no longer be respected among those who value intellectual honesty and integrity. Thanks largely to scientific advances and universal education, more and more people are seeing the fancifulness of religion and discarding it.

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  • Ewan
    May 26, 2015 at 2:56 am

    I’m not sure that I would go along with that. Theology is less threatened by modernity than enriched and informed by it. Our understanding of the faith is very different now to what it was 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 1000 years ago; and that process continues.

    I think what you mean by this, is that theologists are concocting theistic pseudo-science, and reducing biblical texts to the status of rhetoric, in order to skirt around the outright refutation of earlier religious claims by modern science.

    159. Faith and science: “… methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.” (Vatican II GS 36:1)
    283. – The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator,

    These attempts to retain credibility for ancient beliefs, are producing a more complex version of pseudo-scientific theology, as it hopelessly struggles to equate faith-thinking with scientific methodology, and pretends that its dogmas have some credible resemblance to, or even over-ride, the naturalistic understanding of the modern world of science.

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  • Why Are Christian Numbers Dropping?

    This isn’t so tough to understand. With story after story after story like the Duggar family fiasco, who would want to be associated? I actually feel sorry for Christians who really are decent people and get painted with the same brush as these vile people. Not only that, but one of Josh Duggar’s most high-profile supporters is fellow Christian, Mike Huckabee. It’s recently been reported that a judge appointed by Huckabee while he was Arkansas governor had ordered the police to destroy Duggar’s record. These records, btw, are normally kept.

    Now I’m wondering if the same judge may have had records destroyed regarding Huckabee’s own son, who was accused of hanging a dog while he was a Scout camp counsellor at 17 years old. I highly doubt he was a great kid up until then. Ewwww, these people are sick! What the hell?

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  • Theology is less threatened by modernity than enriched and informed by it. Our understanding of the faith is very different now to what it was 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 1000 years ago; and that process continues.

    Thanks Ewan, I had forgotten how progressive the RCC has become. Only 400 years plus to admit that Gaileo was right. All those banned authors and their works in the Index, like James Joyce, Alexander Dumas, Mark Twain, Karl Marx etc, were suddenly OK again after the Index was abandoned in the 60s, I believe. Heavens even that Irish Catholic Archbishop was brave enough to admit the RCC needed a reality check ! Too bad for them that Jesus didn’t intervene in the recent Irish referendum re same sex marriage. Yes a reality check is a sensible suggestion from the holy one. How many more years before the RCC bends to contraception ? It seems most Catholics, in the more advanced countries, just ignore the Church’s teachings on that. Never mind with a biker for a Pope, the RCC should soon, (200 years?), be in the fast lane !

    Progressive theology, my backside !

    If a country like Ireland can turn against the RCC and religion, I can be sure the process will happen a lot faster in the hot house that is the USA.

    Just my opinion mind.

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  • 10
    Vincent says:

    I think it is the availability of so much information on the Internet. It is much harder to believe the Earth is only 5,000 years old when you can look into ocean floor spreading, ocean sediment, magnetic pole reversals, right brain answering prayer, evolution, ice ages, rising ocean levels, etc on your own.

    Kids these days get so much stimulation from computers on the Internet that Church is just too boring, even if it did not fail fact checking on the Internet after Church.

    There was a time when the Church leaders had Bibles and the congregation did not. This meant people had to go to church to hear the word of God and just accept what the Priest said. But after the printing press was invented the dynamics changed. People could get their own Bible and read it.

    The Internet is making an even bigger change in human culture than the printing press did. Organized religion may not survive the change.

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