How to interpret the Pew Survey results

This week’s publication of the latest Pew Survey of the Religious Landscape has provided bloggers, pundits, and religious leaders much to ponder, opportunities to engage in conversation and debate, and voluble commentary seldom seen outside of national sporting events like the Super Bowl.

The survey reports a precipitous decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as “mainline Protestant” has declined 3.4%, from 18.1% to 14.7%. Roman Catholics have seen a similar decline, from 23.9% to 20.8%; while self-identified Evangelicals have decreased from 26.3% to 25.4% of the population.

The only group that has increased significantly is the percentage of those who identify with no religious tradition, the group commonly referred to as “nones.” That percentage has increased from 16.1% to 22.7%, growing by over a 1/3. The growth in the latter group is overwhelmingly driven by “millennials”, people born since 1981. 78% of Baby Boomers identify as Christian; the percentage of millennials who do hovers in the mid 50s. 36% of those born between 1990 and 1996 are religiously unaffiliated according the Pew Study.

I came across a piece by a former colleague, Steve Ramey, who now teaches at the University of Alabama. Ramey points out the limitations of surveys like the Pew:

All of this highlights how any identification, including religious affiliation, is strategic, as people respond according to how they want others to perceive them and what identification best produces that perception. The strategic nature of any identification provides a different, partial explanation for the Pew survey results. The changes over time in the numbers claiming a religious affiliation should be seen as, first and foremost, a change in perception of what affiliation is socially acceptable and useful. Such a change, then, may be less about shifts in practice and belief than social perception and pressure. (Self-reports about practice or belief are also strategic and may not capture significant change in thought or practice.) Despite the media articles that the Pew report generates, the data tells us very little beyond changes in how people are willing to present themselves to anonymous surveyors. That change is itself an interesting development, but its implications are much more difficult to define than a simple reference to growth or decline of differing groups.

Ramey is pointing to something very important. People have reasons for answering survey questions in particular ways. They also have reasons for identifying themselves in certain ways. We have long known the tendency of people to over-report their church attendance. What the Pew Survey, and others like it, show, is that there’s no longer any social incentive to self-identify as Christian. For younger people, for millennials, there may even be disincentives to self-identify as Christian.

These facts do have a significant impact on the future of mainline Christianity (and perhaps also Evangelical), but from the answers to these questions, it’s important not to draw the wrong conclusions. It would be interesting to follow up, to ask of those millennial “nones,” whether they still attend services from time to time, whether they think about God, ponder questions of ultimate meaning, and explore those questions using religious language. I’m always struck, on Christmas Eve, on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter, by the numbers of young adults who come to services at Grace. I don’t know their names; I don’t know anything about them, except that they choose to come to church on those days. Surely that’s a sign of some religious “practice” or “tendency” in them.

Sociologists and survey creators want clarity. They offer limited options; they don’t often delve deeper into behavior, practice, beliefs (and doubts). Surveys that offer a limited range of possible responses can’t account for the ambiguity and plurality of religious practice and belief. My academic background has given me a helpful perspective on those who would understand contemporary trends in religious practice and belief. As a scholar of Religion in Early Modern Europe, I was especially interested in all the ways in which men and women sought to create meaningful religious lives for themselves. They often did it in resistance to the dominant religious and political authorities. They lived on boundaries between Catholic and Protestant, and sometimes Anabaptist or heretic. They might have been confirmed Lutheran, but when in need, they sought out the shrine of a Catholic saint, or holy water, or an amulet. They might have been Catholic, but also been attracted to Lutheran preaching. Whatever confession, they might have been reluctant to attend services except when absolutely necessary. Whatever the case, such behavior was regarded as irreligious by the authorities. Even as I read the religious and political authorities’ criticism of such behavior, I was moved by these people’s efforts to construct meaningful religious lives for themselves over against the official line. Sometimes, it cost them their lives.

What we have today is something analogous. With no social, economic, or political benefits to identifying as religious, and with a wide range of religious options legitimized by our culture, there is no longer any stigma attached to identifying oneself as “religiously unaffiliated.” Similarly, there are no cultural or social benefits attached to attendance at religious services, no stigma if one stays home on Sunday. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There are now cultural and social disincentives to identifying (and practicing( religion.

That’s what the Pew Survey tells us. It’s significant, of course, because we in the religion business can no longer count on a captive audience. But it doesn’t mean that people no longer have religious lives, or that they seek deeper meaning in their lives. It’s just that they don’t automatically look for it in a place of worship or a community of faith. They find it in lots of different places and ways. We’re now competing in a marketplace of ideas and practices, and we will never be able to command the kind of allegiance we were able to command a generation or two ago. People are as likely to find meaning and meaningful spiritual practice in a coffee shop, on a bike trail, at a yoga studio, or with a group of friends, as they are in a place of worship. We can’t compete by becoming those things. We can only compete if we’re able to provide places where they can explore their questions with authenticity and where they can encounter God in Jesus Christ.

We are not witnessing the end of Christianity, or the end of religion, in the United States. We are witnesses to a transformation. There will be some people who will find ways of being religious, Christian, in ways that might not look that much different than religious patterns in the past, creating close communities in which all of life is shaped by the gospel. But there will be others, probably many more, who will create religious lives for themselves that make space for Christian practice but place that practice alongside other practices. They will fashion lives for themselves that are authentic and help them make sense of themselves and their world, but may not fit comfortably into institutional Christianity. The challenge for us on the inside of the institution will be how to remake the institutions in light of the very different ways in which people relate to them. If we can get that (and alongside of that figure out how to create sustainable communities), we will ensure that our particular witness to good news of Jesus Christ will continue to be proclaimed in a new context.

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