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Drew Dyck


Exodus from the Church?

A debate on the state of the faith.

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When the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) released its findings in 2009, the media took notice. USA Today reported that "Most religious groups in USA have lost ground." Other publications were more sensationalistic. Newsweek ran a story with a headline announcing "The End of Christian America."

While popular news outlets aren't known for their restraint, it's easy to see why they got excited. The massive survey—collecting answers from 54,461 respondents from all 48 contiguous states—showed that the number of American's claiming "no religion" had nearly doubled in less than two decades. Adding fuel to the fire was a second huge study released later that year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life which essentially mirrored the findings of ARIS.

However, a handful of researchers are crying foul, claiming that the media (not to mention the ARIS and Pew researchers) have it all wrong. The studies were flawed and the data misinterpreted, they claim. Religion in America is not on the decline. In fact, they contend that it is thriving and even gaining ground.

As a Christian, I'd love to believe this, but I'm not convinced by their critique.

Their main beef with the ARIS and Pew studies seems to be that the studies mistake a decline in denominationalism for a decline in religion. Bryon Johnson rightly points out that simply dropping denominational labels does not mean people have abandoned their faith. He asks, "Do the people who attend Saddleback realize that they are denominationally Southern Baptist?" Probably not. But the salient question is whether or not those Saddleback attendees would respond that they had "no religion" in a telephone interview. I do not think that they would. Indeed, many respondents in the ARIS and Pew studies refused a denominational identity, yet fell within the "Protestant Evangelical" or "Other Christian" categories. Byron observes that asking respondents to choose from a list of denominations is problematic, and I agree. But ARIS posed an open-ended question: "What is your religion, if any?", leaving respondents free to describe their religious (or non-religious) identity as they saw fit. Unsurprisingly, the study identified a rise in those who described themselves as "Born Again" or "Evangelical" and a decline of those who identify with a particular church tradition or denomination. So the study accounted for this shift, while charting an increase in the numbers of the non-religious. The claim that the "Nones" camp is populated by evangelicals stretches credulity. As the study concludes of the "Nones," "This bloc can be described as the non-religious, irreligious and anti-religious bloc. It includes anti-clerical theists, but the majority are non-theists." (Italics mine).

ARIS and Pew certainly have their flaws. Every study does. But some of those flaws may actually skew the results in the opposite direction. For instance, I wonder how many non-religious respondents falsely claimed a religious identity because they had parents or grandparents who were churchgoers—or because their children were listening in the background. Perhaps the most plausible critique of these studies is the one made by the author Charles Taylor; that the rise of the "Nones" does not represent a growing number of irreligious, but rather is a grand outing of sorts, a sign that for the first time, disavowing religion has become socially acceptable.

Where I agree wholeheartedly with Byron is on the salubrious effect religion has on private and public life. Recent studies have demonstrated that religious people make better citizens and neighbors, and even have quicker recovery times when they fall ill. The prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins has famously called religion a virus of the mind. If so, it's a virus we'd all be wise to catch.

Unfortunately, I believe the conclusions of the ARIS and Pew studies are generally accurate and reveal a trend of growing religious disengagement, especially among the young. I don't want to be a doomsayer (and would be thrilled if the trend reversed!), but I also want to guard against complacency. Being a faithful witness begins with facing the reality of what our neighbors do, and do not, believe.

Drew Dyck is managing editor of Leadership Journal and author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith … and How to Bring Them Back (Moody).


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