Internet Monk First Officer Michael Bell returns with a look at some of the recent Pew Forum data on changes in American religious affiliation.
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.
– Bob Dylan 1963
For years I have heard about the many changes that have been taking place within the Christian World. Churches and denominations growing, churches and denominations shrinking. We have had a pretty good idea of who has been growing, and who has been shrinking, but with birth rates, death rates and other factors, it has been pretty hard to pin down the source of the growth and decline. Have Evangelicals been growing? If so, has the growth come from the non religious, Catholics, Mainline Protestants, or other religions? What sort of outflows have they experienced that have offset the inputs? Is the back door larger or smaller than the front door? How are the Catholics, the Mainline Protestants, the non religious and others doing?
Well now we know.
A few days ago, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of a survey entitled Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S. This was followup to their U.S. Religious Landscape Survey that they released last year.
I have been busy in the last week doing a bit of reverse engineering on the numbers to represent the shifts in belief as best and as clearly as I can. Here is the resulting chart. You can click on it to see the full sized version.
What you are looking at is changes in American adults, from their childhoods to present day. As such it eliminates such factors as birthrate and death rate, and strictly looks at who is changing to what. We should note that immigration is a factor in this chart as present day Americans may have been born elsewhere, and so their childhood would have been in a different country. More on this later in the post.
The NONE group
The red color, or None, stands for those with no particular faith. The temptation is to think of this entire group as atheistic, but that is not the case. It is currently comprised of atheists (1.6% of total adult population up from 0.5%), agnostics (2.4% up from 0.2%), and those of no particular faith (12.1% up from 6.6%). I like to think of them as the “no God, don’t know, or don’t care group”. Of those who have no particular faith, roughly half of them (6.3%) would classify themselves as secular, and half (5.8%) would call themselves religious.
The “None” group, now makes up a total of 16.1% of American adults today, a huge increase from the 7.4% who were in this group in their childhood. The interesting paradox is that of those who were raised in this group half now have a religious affiliation, with 1.6% of American adults moving from None to Evangelical (yellow) and 1.0% moving to Mainline Protestant (orange) religious beliefs. Yet, while the None group has had significant outflows they have had much more significant inflows. 4.4% of American adults have switched into this group from Catholic (green). This is 11 times greater than the move from None to Catholic. 3.5% have moved to None from the Evangelicals, more than double the outflow, and 2.7% from Mainline Protestants, almost triple the outflow. There has also been an inflow of .8% of American adults to None from people who classified themselves simply as Protestant, without being willing or able to be more specific. This is represented by a blank space on the chart as we don’t know specifically from where these moves came.
One of my co-workers, who is an atheist, had this interesting question: “If 8.7% of Americans have switched from some type of religious belief to None is one generation, how many generations will it take for religion to be extinguished in America?” This question can’t really be answered, it assumes too much, that rates of change will remain constant, that all religious groups will have the same rate of loss, that help won’t come from other countries, and that God won’t intervene. But the fact that this sort of question has some sort of validity must be of concern to Christians everywhere.
Catholics (green) have the most to be concerned about. They are experiencing huge outflows of 4.4% to the None group, 2.8% to the Evangelicals, and a smaller amount of 1.6% to the Mainline Protestants. This is without any real significant moves to Catholic from any other religious group. In total, 10.0% of adult Americans have moved from Catholic to one of the other groups, and only 2.5% have moved to Catholic from these groups. From other surveys we know that most of this loss has occurred in the North East. While other surveys, like A.R.I.S have shown that Catholic numbers have not fallen significantly overall, this is because the one thing that has kept Catholic numbers from falling significantly overall has been Hispanic immigration in the American Southwest. If you were to visualize this on our chart, you would need to imagine that part of the green column that extends from the top to the bottom of the chart is in fact an input to American Catholicism from Catholicism in other countries.
Evangelicals are at best currently treading water. Their inflows have been matched by outflows, albeit coming from different sources. Much to my surprise, Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants have in fact been swapping members, I had expected much more of a move from Mainline Protestants to Evangelicals. This has not been the case as 2.6% of Americans have moved from Evangelical to Mainline and 2.5% have moved back the other way. More on this later in the post.
Evangelicals have gained 2.8% in moves from the Catholics, and 1.6% in moves from the None group, but have also had 3.5% of their group move to the None group and 0.8% move to Catholics. These moves have largely offset each other as well.
A total of 1.1% has moved to the Historical Black Protestant group (blue), which I will discuss in greater detail when discussing this group. 1.1% have also moved to the “Other Religions” (purple) group which has only been replaced by 0.5% coming back the other way.
As an Evangelical, I find the moves to and from the None group and the Other group quite disconcerting. One of the attributes of being Evangelical is being willing to share the good news of Jesus Christ to the “lost”. With apologies to the Eastern Orthodox (who I grouped with others solely for numerical reasons), the target for Evangelicals is primarily the None and Other groups. Yet, twice as many Evangelicals are moving to these two other groups than are moving from these other groups into Evangelicalism. Clearly Evangelicals have failed mightily in their call to be Evangelical.
Treading water is a dangerous place for Evangelicals to be, because studies like A.R.I.S. show that they are an aging group facing a serious generational horizon, similar to that which has already been experienced by the Mainline Protestants. With a slow leaking away into the None and Other groups and a soon to be experienced generation decline, the Evangelical group looks to be quite different and smaller a generation from now. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it will require the next generation of evangelicals to have a focus and a vision that the current generation does not seem to possess.
HISTORICAL BLACK PROTESTANT
This is the first time that I had worked with numbers that has a separate classification for Historical Black Protestant. This group is made up of a Black Churches from a number of different backgrounds, the largest of which currently are Baptist at 4.4%, Pentecostal at 0.9% and Methodist at 0.6%. A significant majority of the Black Protestants could also quite easily be also classified as Evangelical, so it is not surprising that their largest influx, 1.1%, comes from the Evangelical group. All other inflows were 0.3% or less. From the data that I was able to obtain I was not able to determine the outflows from this group, but I believe them to be less than the inflows. At 6.9% in total they are a significant part of the American landscape, and it will be interesting to see what role they play in future American society.
As mentioned above the Mainline Protestant group has been holding up much better than I expected in terms of its inflows and outflows. Their inflows and outflows with Evangelicals have been virtually identical. They have gained twice as many from the Catholics (1.6%) as they have lost (0.8%). On the other hand they have had 2.7% move to the None group, and only gained 1.0% from that same group. They have also lost 1.1% to the Other group, but only had 0.4% coming back the other way.
It is clear then that the declines that the Mainline Protestants have experienced over the last 40 years have not largely been because of people switching to other groups. Instead it is because they have gone through a very large generational horizon. I recently read an older study that argued quite convincingly that most of the decline in the Mainline Protestant group could be attributed to the birthrate within that group. What we have seen here in this chart would tend to bear that out. While the worst of their declines may be behind them, like the Evangelicals they have significant work to do.
For those who are fans of the TV show “Lost”, this group does not refer to those who battled the Dharma initiative, although they too were called “The Others”. Instead this group is composed of those who did not fall within any of the other classification, and whose numbers were small enough that individually it did not make much sense to show the moves in and out, even if that were possible. When taken as a whole however we are able to look at the moves in and out. Both inflows and outflows occurred proportionally from across the religious spectrum. With the exception of the Black Protestants, inflows were in the range on 0.7% to 1.1% from the Non religious, Catholic and Protestant groups, and outflows were roughly about half that number.
This group is composed of the following:
Eastern Orthodox, currently at 0.6%, and unchanged from the childhood numbers. My apologies to Internet Monk contributor, Father Ernesto, for grouping his church family in this group.
Other Christian, not contained in any other classification, 0.3%, unchanged.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, currently at 0.7% and up 0.1% from the childhood numbers. This group had relatively large inflows and outflows, but ended up with very little change.
Mormons, 1.7%, down 0.1%.
Other religions, 4.7%, up 1.2%. It is this Other religion sub-classification that is of most interest here because it is the only one that has had significant change. When we look at the details within this sub-classification we see that of the other major world religions, only Buddhism had an increase of 0.3% of Americans The other increases (0.9%) came in other religions which were not specified, but were not among the world’s major religions. All we know is that half of this change came from Protestants. The Protestant sub-grouping was also not specified. This is an area in which I would like to know a little more about.
DID NOT KNOW / REFUSED
On the expanded chart, you will see a little white column that represents the 0.7% (childhood) to 0.8% (current) who could not or would not complete the survey.
There is a lot to digest here, and I am afraid that the tendency will be to jump to conclusions. Clearly some serious introspection needs to occur within the Christian community. Part of what will aid that introspection will be my next post where I will continue my analysis. The “Flux” survey includes what must be one of the largest series of exit interviews ever done, and I think this information is vital to where we need to be focusing some of our attention. Therefore, in my next post I will summarizing the reasons why all these changes have occurred.
As usual your thoughts and comments are welcome.