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.