EDITORIAL: America’s changing religious identity
An extensive survey of American religious identification has provoked significant media attention over the finding that an increasing number of Americans say they have no religion. The 2008 survey collated responses from 54,461 adults who were questioned in English or Spanish. It is the third such survey, the results of which were compared with those conducted in 1990 and 2001.
Two findings are most striking. First, the percentage of the American population saying they have no religion has increased from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. Second, those identifying as Christians have declined from 86 percent to 76 percent over the same period.
The picture in Oklahoma is slightly better, with those identifying as Christians declining from 87 percent to 80 percent from 1990 to 2008, while those claiming no religion rose from 7 percent to 11 percent over the same period. In Oklahoma, only 2 percent claim a religion other than Christian, while nationally that number is 6 percent.
What are we to make of this? While the primary findings offer little encouragement, digging into the details beneath the media headlines is quite revealing, with some opportunities to be found as well. First, the numbers show that the challenge American Christians face does not come from other world religions or new religious movements, but rather from a rejection of all religion. Those claiming no religious affiliation number more than 34 million adults, an increase of nearly 20 million people since 1990. Those claiming a religion other than Christianity total 13.1 million, up from 8.5 million in 1990. This includes all Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, etc. The survey clearly shows that a growing number of people are declining to affiliate with Christianity, but most are not identifying with other religions.
Second, the survey indicates that the decline in those affiliating with Christianity comes from certain groups more than others. Among those identified as “white non-Hispanic,” the decline has been steepest among Catholics and Mainline Christian groups, particularly Methodists and Episcopalians. Catholics have declined from 27 to 21 percent, while Mainline Christians have gone from 21 to 17 percent. Baptists, on the other hand, have maintained 15 percent of this population throughout the period of the three surveys, with no decline.
Third, the survey reveals that a key challenge for Baptists centers on reaching ethnic peoples and younger adults. Among Hispanic peoples, Baptists have declined from 7 to 3 percent from 1990 to 2008, while decline among Asian peoples is greater yet, going from 9 to 3 percent over the same period. It should be noted that these declines do not necessarily reflect people leaving Baptist churches. The greater percentage of decline is immigrants who have not been reached. As America becomes increasingly ethnic, it is essential that we accelerate the starting of churches that reach ethnic peoples, particularly immigrants. African-American affiliation with Baptist churches has seen a decline from 50 to 45 percent, with much of the decline explained by an increasing number of African-Americans moving into the “no religion” category.
Regarding younger adults, there is some good news. The study shows that since 2001, there has been considerable growth in the number of people aligning themselves with what the survey terms “generic Christianity,” which includes a variety of non-denominational Christian groups. In seven years this group has grown by 3.4 percent, or nearly 10 million people. Most striking is that the growth comes primarily from younger adults. Young adults are increasingly identifying themselves as Christians, but they prefer not to identify with a particular denomination. By comparison, 58 percent of Baptists are age 50 and above, while only 42 percent of adult Baptists are under age 50. We have work to do.