Smoke & Mirrors: How To Make the “Religious” Disappear

The recent report from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) is making the news: fewer and fewer Americans “got religion.”  Over the past two decades, the number of people identifying themselves as having “no religion” climbed from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.  There are slightly more atheists, a few more agnostics, a slowly growing segment of non-denominational Christian believers, while Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jewish populations continue to decline as a percentage of the U.S. population.  All of this is accurate, as far as it goes, but it is easy to draw some hasty — and fundamentally wrong — conclusions from this data.

Researchers want to make people believe (I know, I am one) that research is a science — controlled by rigorous protocols and structured around scientific methodology.  However, research still contains the human element — data doesn’t become information until human beings organize it, interpret it, and then draw conclusions from it.  Messy.  Art displaces science.  This doesn’t make it less accurate, just worthy of close scrutiny, critical thinking, and a smidgen of common sense.

The American cultural perspective on “religion” has undergone a revolution over the past two decades.  The term “religion” does not evoke the same positive regard it once did.  We have experienced the “spiritual, but not religious” phenomenon in the U.S.  We have also witnessed an outbreak of what is labeled “pastiche spirituality” — spiritual seekers pulling core beliefs, practices, scriptures and teachings from a wide variety of “religious” traditions.  It is not unusual, for example, to meet people who grew up Jewish, converted to Christianity, adopted Buddhism, and have read widely in many faith traditions.  When you ask this growing segment of the U.S. population what “religion” or “religious affiliation” they adhere to, they automatically — and accurately — respond, “none.”  The majority of New Age and alternative belief systems — including Santeria, Scientology, nature cults, Wicca, etc. — do not consider their worldview “religion,” and will not agree to identify it as such. 

Another interesting phenomenon is the growing population of people who attend a Christian mainline church on a regular basis, believe in God, believe in Jesus Christ, and who aren’t looking for any “larger” truth, who do not describe themselves as “religious” or admit to any denominational ‘flavor.’  For many people, “religion” implies such negative connotations that they avoid any association with it.  Beyond this, our individualistic society, where people struggle to protect their privacy, compels many people to lie on surveys.  Having done broad survey work with “religious” audiences, I have been fascinated in follow-up interviews by the number of people who tell me some variation of, “well, I checked “none” on the religious preference question, because it’s nobody else’s business what I believe.”  It used to be that these types of responses were compensated for by the allowed “margin of error.”  Today, this is no longer always true.

Is religion changing in America?  Definitely.  Is “atheism” a current fashionable fad, similar to the ‘Eastern faith dabbling’ from a generation ago?  You bet.  Are “independent” Christian churches drawing off former “mainliners?”  No doubt.  Is America really “less religious” than before?  Not likely, but there simply isn’t enough good evidence to be sure.  The most unfortunate aspect to the ARIS survey is that it only views one segment of a long standing cycle — religious interest in the U.S. hits high peaks in the odd decades (30s, 50s, 70s, 90s), but troughs in the evens (20s, 40s, 60s, 80s, 00s).  Part of what the ARIS indicates is true, as it has been in every part of the natural and normal cycle of religious interests for the past century.  But looking at a snapshot instead of a long view gives a skewed picture, one that raises a whole lot more questions than it answers, and gives people an incomplete picture of the spiritual lanscape in the U.S.

6 replies

  1. I heard about this study on the radio, as I was driving back to the Church office, after lunch. Rather than dismissing the data, is this not another opportunity for us to be the Church in action, rather than the Church lamenting our lessening imact.

    • I hope you don’t hear me as “dismissing the data,” but as saying there is a lot more to the story than the numbers tell. We are living in a time of great texture and diversity and we can’t afford to take these numbers at face value without applying some critical thinking. There is an implication that “religion” is losing influence and that this is something new or a sign of a linear downward trend. The fact that it is cyclical rather than linear is important to understand. The fact that there is a shift in language and in our definitions of what it means to be “religious” is also important. There is a lot more going on here than just a growing number of people who don’t believe in God or a higher power. And while it is important to know where things stand, we always have to be careful not to jump to conclusions about what these results truly mean. Your point about mobilizing the church to action is valid. It’s unfortuante that we need to wait for bad news to motivate us.

      • I don’t mean to imply that you are being dismissive. I tend to agree that Christianity is losing influence, but that it is not necessarily a bad thing – more of an opportunity. If the Church were to live out faith, instead of considering faith just one more activity, then I think we would see a different picture. This study is both an indictment and an opportunity.

  2. I agree that the ARIS survey, like all surveys, are open to interpretation. But this trend does seem to follow other such surveys, basically a lessening of religious belief. In Europe, this trend is even more pronounced.

    As for Wiccans and such, they were listed under a different category in the ARIS survey, “New Religious Movements”. I think that the “Nones” listed in the survey track non-belief closer than you’re implying here. Sure, the percentage of “atheists” in the “nones” group is low, but secular groups are split on what to call themselves. Many prefer “Humanists”, “agnostics” (some agnostics are basically deists, but most just don’t want to state their stance in definite terms), “freethinkers”, and others. Basically, this religious society has given the word “atheist” such a negative connotation that many don’t want to associate with that label.

    Also, it should be noted that Unitarian-Universalist are listed under NRM, even though a large percentage of them are also atheists.

    Of course, being an atheist, this might be wishful thinking on my part. However, being a Methodist, you might also be partaking in the same. Any counts of religious identification have large inaccuracies for various reasons. However, it does seem like this country is finally becoming a bit more secular.

    At the very least, it brings all beliefs in this diverse society out in the open for constructive criticism, something that wasn’t always allowed in the past. Even now, the UN is considering what amounts to an anti-blasphemy law, which restricts any such dialog. Even today, such criticism is not allowed in certain parts of the world. Perhaps this secularization of society will allow a more basic baseline for discussions of religion, morality, charity, and other related issues. If you look at the Constitution, it is one of the most secular founding documents in the world, and this is the one thing that has allowed religious freedom here. You don’t have this diverse a religious culture in a theocracy.

    • You very well could be right on all counts. I acknowledge that my biases may make me blind to some simple facts. I actually don’t have a hard time with the percentage of Americans claiming no faith — if anything, I believe earlier statistics were inflated in favor of religion. Much more interesting to me than those who say they believe or don’t are those saying they don’t know what they believe. In my own research for The United Methodist Church, I have witnessed a doubling of those who fit an “agnostic” category. Whether this is because the sciences, archaeology, anthropology, etc., casts shadows and raises questions, or because there is less “religious instruction” in many people’s lives, I don’t know. I wish the ARIS project spent more time on the not-sures — I suspect many “believers” and “non-believers” more accurately fit this category.

      As to a healthy society where all can come together, bringing the best from their respective positions, and employing the very best common sense and critical thinking — I sometimes despair. A huge segment of my own faith tradition refuse to play by any sensible set of rules. It seems that the loudest voices from the extremities receive most of the attention and make it ever harder to find a sustainable middle-ground. I am much more embarrassed by all the narrow-minded Christians than I am by those who disagree with, or reject, the Christian faith. If we want to honor the intentions of religious freedom, we have to allow “none” as one of the legitimate categories — but many “loving Christians” seem unwilling to do so.

      Once again, the ARIS study points out a fundamental flaw in religious thinking today: we focus on what we don’t have to the detriment of what we do have. If the leaders of the various denominations and factions within the Christian faith would commit as much time, energy, resources, and effort into working to make the world a better, more loving, more just, more safe, and more compassionate place to live, we would all be better off. Instead, we strategize and plot new ways to stem the tide away from organized religion, often by forcing our way in where we’re not welcome, to share that which no one wants. Lord, forgive us – we know not what we do…

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I deeply appreciate it.

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