Thursday, March 12, 2009

The post-Christian shift in America continues.

For several years I have been claiming that the United States is entering a post-Christian stage of intellectual development, something I consider to be a positive trend. I argued that this trend was part of a wider trend toward more social liberalism in generally, another thing which I consider to be generally positive. Last year I wrote: “Americans are moving rapidly and quickly toward social liberalism… The American people got tired of the culture wars and they seem to be abandoning the cultural conservatives.” All this is part of our country “moving toward a post-Christian culture.”

In 2007 I wrote an article entitled “The rise of post-Christian America” which got a lot of attention in some circles. I said “there has been a marked shift in American attitudes toward religion that has come about in the last four to eight years.” I pointed to several trends, which I felt were indications “that the United States is about to enter the post-Christian phase of intellectual development that has already dominated every Western nation except the United States.”

I also warned Christians, who rarely listen to what I have to say anyway, that there is a tipping-point in religious attitudes. I wrote:
…that religion in America has relied heavily on group pressure and social norms. People rarely embraced religion because they were intellectual convinced it was rational. …Most religionists embraced theism merely because everyone else did. If fewer and fewer people embrace religion that gives others permission to reject it as well.
The most recent American Religious Identification Survey (2008) shows that the trends I’ve claimed exist are substantiated. This survey notes that in 1990 86% of Americans identified themselves as Christian in some form or another. In 2008 that has dropped to 70%. In rough terms that means that approximately one in five of the individuals who identified as Christian in 1990 no longer do so. The survey also says that the decline in numbers of Christians is not due to them converting to a new faith but abandoning their faith. “The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.” The number of Americans who say they lack religious beliefs increased from 8.2% in 1990 to 15% in 2008.

However, the number of Americans who fall in the non-believer camp may still be higher than these numbers indicate. While 15% of Americans admit to being without a religious belief the percentage saying they will have a non-religious funeral is at 27%. Since the religious community has continually demonized atheists and other non-believers the numbers of people holding such beliefs tends to be higher than the number who admit holding such beliefs. Another area which may be hiding non-believers is the increasing percentage of Americans who refused to answer whether they believed or not, or who claimed (unconvincingly) that they “don’t know” what they believe. That category went from 2.3% in 1990 to 5.2% in 2008. The survey says: “If we include those Americans who either don’t know their religious identification (0.9 percent) or refuse our key question (4.1 percent), and who tend to somewhat resemble ‘Nones’ in their social profile and beliefs, we can observe that in 2008 one in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind compared with one in ten in 1990.” The raw number of people who identified as non-believers went from 14,331,000 people in 1990 to 34,169,000 in 2008, an increase of 138%.

At the same time the numbers of people who are members of Christian sects, but who hold distinctly unchristian beliefs about God, is another factor to consider. Some self-identified Christians are not actually Christians when it comes to their beliefs. The percentage of people who claim to belong to Christian sects are approximately 70%. And the survey shows that 69.5% of all Americans believe there is a personal God. At first glance that seems to be a relatively small difference. But we ought to remember about 78% of the public claims to identify with a faith that teaches the existence of a personal God. Some unknown, but not insignificant, number of non-believers are a member of the various sects even today.

Nor are all religions are being affected equally. Some Christian sects are in more trouble than others. And some are facing future problems more significant than others today. The number of Catholics has declined slightly, from 26.2% to 25.1% but this hides the decline of native-born Catholics since immigration is helping hold these numbers steady. Baptists have significantly declined from 19.3% in 1990 to 15.8% in 2008. And mainline Protestants have dropped from 18.7% to 12.9% of the population during the same period.

The numbers of those who describe themselves as broadly Christian has gone from 14.8% to 14.2%. Pentecostals increased slightly during this time period from 3.2% to 3.5%. But all that gain was in the 1990s. Since 2001 the percentage of Pentecostals has declined slightly. And contrary to the spin put on church membership by the Mormon leadership that sect has had no growth whatsoever in the last 18 years in terms of their percentage of the population. It has remained steady at 1.4%.

Future problems for a sect are indicated by the percentage of young people in their pews. If a congregation is primarily made up of the elderly it will disappear relatively quickly. If it is mostly young people it will probably grow. An estimated 22% of the American population are between the ages of 18 and 29. Below is a chart of selected Christian sects and how far off they are from that percentage in regards to church membership. A negative number implies they are that many percentage points below the national average of young people. I have added the “nones” in as a comparison.

Catholic -1
Baptist – 11
Mainline Christian -4
Pentecostal – 6
Mormon 0
Jewish -1
Nones +7

That Mormons have no statistically advantage in terms of youthful members is rather surprising. According to the survey 22% of Mormons are between 18 and 29, which is precisely the percentage of Americans between those ages. Yet, according to the New Yorker: “The Mormon birth rate is about fifty per cent higher than the national average.” A higher birth rate ought to mean that the percentage of young Mormons is higher than the national average not the same.

Mormonism is clearly having a problem. It seems unable to hold on to converts and unable to hold on to their own young. The 2001 ARIS numbers showed that the numbers who left the Mormon cult was slightly higher than the number joining it. Official Mormon numbers are vastly higher than the numbers of people who actually think they are Mormon—in other words the Mormon sect counts as members people who do not think they are Mormons. For instance, the LDS sect claimed to have 176,998 members in the UK as members while the official census showed only 61,949 people said they were Mormons. Arthur Sido, a former Mormon wrote: “Before I left Mormonism I was the membership clerk in the bishopric, and the number of people on the rolls who were not only not attending, but outright hostile is staggering (maybe as high as 50% or more never attended).” The Salt Lake Tribune says, “the number of Latter-day Saints who are considered active churchgoers is only about a third of the total” of official membership figures. And one Mormon expert says that the sect “lose 70 to 80 percent of their converts.”

The last area I will cover is where non-believers live: some states have a higher percentage of non-believers than other states. Regionally non-believers are more likely to be found in New England and in the West. Here are the states with the largest percentage of non-believers.

Vermont • 34
Wyoming • 28
Washington • 25
Maine • 25
Oregon • 24
Nevada • 24
Delaware • 23
Idaho • 23
Massachusetts • 22
Montana • 21
Colorado • 21
California • 18
Arizona • 17
Ohio • 17
Nebraska • 17
Michigan • 16
New Mexico • 16
Wisconsin • 15
Iowa • 15
Indiana • 15
New Jersey • 15
Pennsylvania • 15
Virginia • 15
West Virginia • 15

As you can see non-believers are a substantial number of people in many states today. In fact many US states now have more non-believers than there are Catholics. States where non-believers outnumber Catholics are: Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Vermont, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. In Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina and Colorado, Catholics and non-believers are in a statistical tie. While I don’t have hard numbers to calculate the population percentages of Baptists in the various states it appears that non-believers outnumber them in approximately 32 states. Compare the map at the top of the page to the one below of Baptists in the various counties to see what I mean.

Note: The first map charts the percentage of non-believers in the various states. Please note that the ARIS survey seems to have nothing listed for either Alaska or Hawaii. I have emailed them for the numbers for those states. I will follow up on this with an article on what the ramifications of this shift are for American politics.

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