I promised a day ago that I would pour through the ARIS 2008 (Published March, 2009) survey that forms the basis for Jon Meacham’s article in Newsweek, “The End of Christian America.” I have spent hours looking through the survey, highlighting, commenting, and reading the original article that first lead me to this survey. It is the cover story for the magazine. The cover reads, “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” I will do my best to summarize the basic findings of the survey and interact with them.
First, while I am not a professional statistician. I will say that anyone who immediately finds fault in the survey itself has probably not read it. The survey is quiet airtight. It asks only open ended questions. There is no “Do you think Christianity is A-Evil; B-Bad; C-just OK; D-A lie.” Nothing of the sort. Further, they did a good job of polling large numbers of people around the country in a random sample, that appears unbiased to any outcome. In fact, the survey effort seems quite impressive.
Meacham’s article seems quite fair to the outcome of the survey itself, with a couple of areas that were significantly unmentioned, in my eyes. Meacham did his job, and I am not criticising him at all. But his article did leave me with some impressions that analysing the survey modified in some ways.
First of all, the survey was not a 2 part survey taken in 1990 and 2008. It was a three part survey taken in 1990, 2001, and 2008. the numbers can be compared between 1990 and 2008, and they should. But leaving out the middle survey leads to one significant false impression.
When I read the Newsweek article, I was alarmed to the growing crisis of faith our country is now having. When I read the ARIS survey, I realized that even though the numbers are striking, the real striking change did not take place between 2001 and 2008. the really big change mostly took place between 1990 and 2001! In almost every case, the change between the first and second survey is striking, and the change between the second and third is a slowed continuation of that trend.
Take for example, the biggest statistic quote of the article, that the numbers of Christians have decreased from 86.2% in 1990 to 76% in 2008. That is true, but the 2001 number was 76.6%. This means that in the 11 years of the first survey, the number of Christians decreased 9.6% in America. That is .87% a year. Between 2001 and 2008, the number decreased .7%. That is a decrease of .1% per year. This means that the Christian slide has been decreasing as of late, not rapidly increasing. The increase in those with “no religion” also has followed a similar pattern.
Of course, this doesn’t make the survey good news. It is bad news…very bad news. It does mean that this is not a sudden and new trend.
Another thing that is worth noting is that the Christian slide is not across the board. The article interviews a Baptist leader, and the Baptists have a whole lot to be worried about. They are in steady decline. There is no real slowing of the curve between 2001 and 2008 for them. The “Mainline Christian” group (which includes Methodist, U. Meth, AME, Lutheran, Presbyterian Episcopal/Anglican, U Church of Christ, Reformed, DoC, Moravian, Quaker, and all of the Orthodox groups) have fared even worse, with their numbers declining even more in the 2001-2008 leg than the one before.
But, the “Christian Generic” group (containing those who would only answer that they were “Christian,” “Non Denom Christian,” “Protestant,” “Evangelical,” “Born Again,” and those who said that they were Pentecostal or Charismatic) actually increased in each survey period across the board. Some of these numbers were striking. Non Denominational Christians almost tripled between 2001 and 2008. They increased by almost 6 million adherents in that time period. that is amazing, compared with all of the other trends.
Those that list no religion have outgrown every other group in every single category, though. Their geographical and demographic information is very interesting as well. The Pacific Northwest is no longer the center of irreligion in the US. That title is now held by the Northeast. Vermont is particularly noteworthy, where No Religion is now the largest religious group, when catholics and protestants are separated. They have a population of 34% who claim to have no religion.
The No Relgion group has the largest disparity of any group between the sexes, as well. Twenty percent more men than women (60-40) claim this category. Every other religious group has more women adherents than men (Baptists with the biggest disparity that way at 14%), except for Muslims, Eastern religions, and the off-brand religions (wiener-dog worship, etc) who have more male adherents.
A lot has been said about rapid growth of Islam. Statistically, it appears to be largely from immigration, and it is almost solely from unmarried men.
The biggest thing I noticed about the survey though, was how stratified it was according to race. When race is factored in, black people are holding to their faith largely, and Hispanics are mostly shifting from one Christian group to another. But Asians, and even more markedly whites, are leaving faith for agnosticism/atheism at huge rates. While Asians (it must be noted that Asian includes any group from the continent of Asia—something that we need to stop doing—there is no way a Chinese person has that much in common with an Iranian, or Indian) are the largest group with no religion at 27%, the whites without faith doubled between 1990 and 2008, with the vast majority of that growth between the first and second surveys.
The numbers in these surveys are very bleak for Christianity, on the one hand. It might be good for Christianity on the other, though. This might force American Christians to re-examine the orthopraxy, one they realize that their orthodoxy doesn’t need to be changed. Further, the old mainline denominations are rapidly deteriorating, while the more outside the box non-denominational groups are actually growing. It must be noted that throughout the 90’s and 2000’s the mainlines were characterized by large theological battles over liberalization of theology, while the charismatics and non-denominationals did not have these struggles. I do not think there is much doubt that these struggles factor in significantly to the trends shown in this survey. It appears to me that theological and social appeasement has not led to increased adherents, but large exodus to other Christian groups. –Ryan Shinn