Number of Non-Christians Continues To Increase

by: Chris Bowers

Mon Mar 09, 2009 at 10:00

Although it receives noticeably less media attention then the changing ethnic makeup of America, there is a deep shift in religious self-identification that is changing the national cultural landscape at an equal rate. The latest version of the American Religious Identification Survey, which was released earlier today, confirms a continuing shift away from Christian self-identification in America:

The percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation. The faithful have scattered out of their traditional bases: The Bible Belt is less Baptist. The Rust Belt is less Catholic. And everywhere, more people are exploring spiritual frontiers - or falling off the faith map completely.

These dramatic shifts in just 18 years are detailed in the new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), to be released today. It finds that, despite growth and immigration that has added nearly 50 million adults to the U.S. population, almost all religious denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS survey in 1990.

An 11% drop in Christian self-identification has major political implications. In 2008, self-identified non-Christians voted for Barack Obama by a massive, 75%-23% margin. If, in another 18 years, there is a further 11% shift away from Christian self-identification, according to current voting patterns it would increase the Democratic margin of another 5-6%.

I'll be eager to look over the entire survey because, while some news reports indicate the drop in Christian self-identification has been over 11%, others place it at 10%:

In 2008, Christians comprised 76 percent of U.S. adults, compared to about 77 percent in 2001 and about 86 percent in 1990. Researchers said the dwindling ranks of mainline Protestants, including Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians, largely explains the shift. Over the last seven years, mainline Protestants dropped from just over 17 percent to 12.9 percent of the population.

No matter how often politicians and pundits decry polarization in America, none of them ever really address the broad cultural trends that play a role in this. Christianity used to be a nearly consensus aspect of ideology in this country, and now that consensus is crumbling. When such a large ideological institution begins to lose sway over the population, only the most sheltered among us would expect the vacuum to be filled with bland, centrist, Broder-esque uniformity.

Chris Bowers :: Number of Non-Christians Continues To Increase

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Contrast (0.00 / 0)
There was this report in the NY Times a few weeks ago which details attitudes in Scandinavia. I think it gives a hint of where trends in the US will lead.

Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism.
And he concluded that "religion wasn't really so much a private, personal issue, but rather, a nonissue." His interviewees just didn't care about it.

Beyond reticence, Mr. Zuckerman found what he terms "benign indifference" and even "utter obliviousness." The key word in his description of their benign indifference is "nice." Religion, in their view, is "nice." Jesus "was a nice man who taught some nice things." The Bible "is full of nice stories and good morals, isn't it?"

Beyond niceness came utter obliviousness.

Thoughtful, well-educated Danes and Swedes reacted to Mr. Zuckerman's basic questions about God, Jesus, death and so on as completely novel. "I really have never thought about that," one of his interviewees answered, adding, "It's been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about."

Policies not Politics

I'll take (4.00 / 1)
"nice" over the gay-bashing, clinic bombing Religious Right any day. Bring on the nice.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Christians (0.00 / 0)
Sorry but non-christians can be just as conservative as anyone can be.  There is simply no evidence that a differently-made-up society will struggle for the ideas that we desperately need, a mixed economy and a welfare state.  

"No evidence" (4.00 / 5)
Other than that they are currently voting Democratic 75-23 you mean?  Or is that not "evidence" that they tend to be less conservative?

Christianity as most commonly practiced embodies a great deal of conservative social ideology.  Never mind what Jesus actually taught, the way it is practiced is deeply authoritarian, patriarchical as well as many other adjectives that one would apply to conservatives as a group.

So for someone to have rejected that, it stands to reason they are likely to be less conservative generally.

Of course there are exceptions, but Chris' premise is pretty obvious as a sound generalization for the medium future.

[ Parent ]
Correlation is not evidence of causation (0.00 / 0)
"Other than that they are currently voting Democratic 75-23 you mean?"

I put myself firmly in the non-religious demographic, but your arguments as to how the last election reflects these trends is a stretch at best.

For example: based on the study the number of americans identifying as christian dropped 1 percentage point during the Bush/Cheney Administration. We were just as "non-christian" when GWB got reelected in 2004, no?

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
it is still "evidence" (0.00 / 0)
Not so conclusive that one cannot make a contrary claim, but are you seriously contenting it is equally likely that the non-Christians will vote for Republicans or Democrats?

It turns out that "other" religions voted 74-23 for Kerry, and "none" voted 67-31 for him.

In 2008, "other" was 73-22, and "none" 75-23.

So Obama gained among the non-religious, but they were still decisively anti-Republican in 2004.

[ Parent ]
That's not quite right. (0.00 / 0)
Correlation can be evidence of causation.  It's not the same, of course.  In fact, if something does not correlate, we need to doubt causation.  For example:

Non-belief tends to lead to conservatism, or even, non-belief does not tend toward liberalism/progressivism.  In this case, the evidence is clearly stacked against those statements.

If we assume that there are three ways that this can go-- non-belief leading to conservatism, progressivism, or neither-- then I think we can rightly conclude that it leads to progressivism.

[ Parent ]
You are right (4.00 / 1)
I shouldn't have used the word "evidence".  Maybe "does not prove"?

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
I guess. (0.00 / 0)
I think it's mostly just a correlation.  I think that it supports the idea that the one causes the other, but I think that there is also the possibility that something else caused both.

As a scientist (in an unrelated field) I would say that the evidence supports Mr. Bowers' conclusion.

[ Parent ]
Scientist to scientist (0.00 / 0)
All we have here is a hypothesis based on the correlation. We'll need a few more experiments (elections?) to begin proving anything, but being that this is a kind of social science hypothesis, it'll be pretty damned hard to establish suitable controls :)

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
True, true. (0.00 / 0)
But I think that social scientists have their own special methodologies that they can apply.  It takes work, though.

[ Parent ]
Is it possible to talk about political strategy at all... (0.00 / 0)
...without making generalizations based on exit polling and other demographic data?  Your point may be technically true, but it seems like special pleading.

[ Parent ]
Predictive value (4.00 / 3)
I don't think Chris is trying to show cause.  Nonetheless, the percentage of non-Christians has a predictive value.  As a comparison, white middle-aged males are more likely to vote Republican than Democratic.  I am a white middle-aged male.  It does not "cause" me to vote Republican and I don't.  It is just that people in this segment are more likely to vote Republican.

As a group, blacks are most likely to vote Democratic.  Hispanics are likely to vote Democratic but are less likely and less predictable than non-Christians.

Non-Christian members of Congress (either House) are hugely Democratic.  The totals are (according to Jews 38-2 plus 2 Independents caucusing with the Democrats; Not stated 15-0; Unitarian 2-0; Buddhist 2-0; Moslem 2-0 and not affiliated 1-0.  That is 50-2-2.  I think that's significant.

Btw, Mormons are pretty largely Republican (10-3).  Are they included as non-Christian?  Were they in earlier samples?

[ Parent ]
I wasn't responding to Chris (0.00 / 0)

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
Why? (4.00 / 3)
I am always confused by leftist celebrations of the decline of Christianity in our country. It's as if they have forgotten history.

There is not a single progressive movement in this country that didn't depend heavily on the support and leadership of the churches. When that support and leadership is weakened, progressive causes in all areas of our society are handicapped.

I understand and sympathize with the anger toward conservative congregations that have dominated the headlines. But most people in local churches across this country aren't running Republican political advocacy organizations. They are praying for peace, economic justice, social reform. And not just praying: they are feeding the hungry, advocating for the imprisoned, welcoming the addicted in recovery.

I am saddened by the ignorance of left-leaning organizations that continue to minimize or ignore the overwhelming contribution the Christian church continues to make for progressive causes small and large. Painting Christian churches with such a one-dimensional brush does little to help the causes for which we share a common concern.

The defensiveness is unnecessary. (4.00 / 3)
There's nothing particularly celebratory in tone about this post.

My broad brush view of progressive history is that liberal/progressive innovators and early adopters are almost invariably in conflict with the religious traditions and institutions of their time--often explicitly so.  I would say that successful progressive movements have had to win over the liberal strains of christianity in order to be successful.  Major political movements have often been associated with religious reform movements.

So I'll buy "support".  But I'm less convinced when it comes to "leadership".  Has christianity led the movement for gay equality?  Hardly.  (However, the fact that churches and denominations are taking up the issue now is a sign that the movement is reaching critical mass.)  Did christianity lead the movement for women's equality?  Certainly not that I'm aware of--though I'd love to read anything that will educate me on this.  Did christianity lead the labor movement?  I've always understood that it was the atheistic commies and their fellow travelers.  

[ Parent ]
It has not lead (0.00 / 0)
on homosexualty.

But the anti-slavery movement and the civil rights movement were both lead by preachers.  

[ Parent ]
The early anti-slavery preachers... (4.00 / 4)
...were predominately Unitarians, and they were engaged in pretty radical religious reform at the time.  Denying the divinity of Jesus, for instance.  Throwing out all supernaturalism.  Rejecting exclusivism for ecumenicism and universalism.

William Lloyd Garrison was fiercely anti-clerical as were many of the famous names in nineteenth century progressive movements, including the anti-slavery movement.  "Freethought" was a major component of the whole progressive milieu.

No one group can or should try to claim ownership of historical progressivism.  But it must be recognized that secularization and the rejection of traditional religious beliefs were important components of the overall trend toward greater freedom and equality.

[ Parent ]
Also Quakers. (4.00 / 2)
And the Quakers were always a step ahead of the rest of us when it came to female emancipation, too.

Solzhenitzyn said "the line between good and evil runs through the human heart" but I think it could also be said that the line between good and evil runs through the Church as well.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Did you forget Martin Luther King Jr. (4.00 / 1)
in regards to his efforts to have better laws established for labor.

     Also, there is a progressive Christian movement that are very concerned about the environment, health-care, the inequality of wealth, the poor, etc--social justice.

     I don't proscribe to the majority of his beliefs, but Rick Warren (and other progressive Christian leaders) have a following, and if their members are taking action to these causes. . . then I salute them.

[ Parent ]
News Flash! Christianity Isn't Monolithic! (4.00 / 2)
There is not a single progressive movement in this country that didn't depend heavily on the support and leadership of the churches

Just like there isn't a single progressive movement in this country that didn't face strong opposition from leadership of the churches.

In fact, even the black church as a national institution failed to support the civil rights movement.  That's why King and his associates had to form their own organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
I'm not at all in disagreement.... (0.00 / 0)
Actually,that was kinda my point. Religious people are all over the map. But implying that progressive causes are better off without them is just plain dumb.

I understand and respect anyone who is not religious. That's a personal choice - and that's not my business. But even a cursory glance at history will reveal the critical leadership of religious leaders and institutions:
- in the labor movement
- for suffrage and equality for all

and....yes...even in the gay liberation movement....

I realize that these stories are largely untold, but I also feel it is partly my job to remind my progressive friends that more often than not over the course of history, churches have served as allies - and in many instances as catalysts and instigators - of progressive causes.

I recently looked at the Action Alerts of my own denomination - United Methodist - the third largest in the country. We as a denomination are advocating for causes that we chose through democratic, representational processes - and the current three are: advocating for federal voting rights of the people in the District of Columbia, ending the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, urging the funding of the second chance act to assist ex-offenders. Day in and day out, church groups are advocating and working for justice in so many different ways. It doesn't grab headlines and it isn't as sensational as Ted Haggard and Focus on the Family. But it adds up to quite an effort - and one that progressives would do good to celebrate, endorse and capitalize on.

[ Parent ]
I don't think anyone is implying (4.00 / 1)
progressive causes are better off without religious people. But the decline of the Religious Right (which is what I read between the lines of the decline in Christian identification -- people are finally becoming too embarrassed to be associated with those haters) is very, very good news.

The basic story (from what I've read) is this: normal, mainline Christians are holding steady, evangelicals fluctuate (they don't have growth they have churn, losing as many members as they gain, even losing their own kids at a higher rate than normal Christians) and  the fastest growing group is "non-religious." That "non-religious" group favors the Democratic Party, as does about half of the normals.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Christians (0.00 / 0)
Good point, just above.

I don't follow (4.00 / 1)
You say:

"No matter how often politicians and pundits decry polarization in America, none of them ever really address the broad cultural trends that play a role in this. Christianity used to be a nearly consensus aspect of ideology in this country, and now that consensus is crumbling. When such a large ideological institution begins to lose sway over the population, only the most sheltered among us would expect the vacuum to be filled with bland, centrist, Broder-esque uniformity."

The primary source of religious/cultural polarization in this country comes from a minority of angry fundamentalists riling their base in exactly the same way they did thirty years ago.  How has the decline in religious practice exacerbated conflict?

Stable since 2001 (4.00 / 2)
The report shows little change since 2001.  If I am reading this report correctly, almost all of the change happened between 1990 and 2001.

Not sure what to make of that, but the data suggests stability since 2001.  The trend to more fundementalist sects and away from the mainline protestant churches is disturbing, but has been going on for decades.  

"Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East" (0.00 / 0)
FROM THE ARTICLE "When God Spoke to Me": .....During those private interviews, Jacque Chirac had purportedly confessed to the journalist some personal remarks regarding the faith of George W. Bush that seemed quite daunting. He told the journalist that the latter called him twice beseeching him basically, in the name of their common "spiritual faith", i.e., "Christianity", to join the collective effort of the coalition being formed to wage a preemptive war against Iraq. In his first telephonic call he reportedly said to Jacque Chirac: "Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East" and then added that "the biblical prophecies are being fulfilled".....


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