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Byron Johnson

Exodus from the Church?

A debate on the state of the faith.

It is very popular these days to claim that religion—especially among the young—is not only in decline, but that people are leaving the faith in droves. This is, of course, a story many in the media are happy to help disseminate as if it were true. Sadly, joining the media in making such claims are a number Christians, armed with bad data or a lack of understanding when it comes to interpreting data, or both. Consider the recent book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters. The book offers a pathetic view of Christians that is wildly inaccurate. It paints a picture of contemporary Christians that goes something like this: "Why would anyone want to be a Christian since Christians tend to be such rotten people?" The book is a highlight reel for how not to conduct objective and scholarly research. UnChristian is not based on a random or representative sample of the American population. Rather, it is based on interviews with people who have had negative experiences in the church or with believers. Unfortunately, sample bias does not keep the book's authors from making unwarranted generalizations about contemporary Christians. Adding insult to injury, the authors ignore hundreds of empirical studies documenting all the positive and prosocial ways in which Christians show compassion by helping others. Instead they choose to focus on what we social scientists call "outliers," the exceptions. if the book were turned in as an essay in an undergraduate methods course I was teaching, it would get a failing grade.

Alas, like UnChristian, Drew Dyck's book Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults are Leaving the Faith … and How to Bring them Back relies upon dubious data and anecdotes. Not one empirical study published in a reputable journal that would support his central thesis is cited in the entire book. Unfortunately, many ministers and other church leaders do not know the difference between good and bad research and share as fact what authors like this are contending to be the truth. In sociology we call this creating a moral panic. Drew is correct when he states popular news outlets aren't known for their restraint—ditto for many Christian thought leaders.

Drew cites the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) and a survey by the Pew Forum (the Religious Landscape Survey) as evidence of a falling away from the faith, as both report increases in those marking "no religion" on surveys. My previous response has already addressed why it is wrong to draw this conclusion. I'm not offering my opinion; I'm simply referring to the data by drawing upon published studies in scholarly journals. I raise the issue of journal publications because research published in academic journals is reviewed and vetted thoroughly by anonymous reviewers long before it is ever accepted for publication. Studies submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals undergo a lengthy and rigorous review before they ever see the light of day. In fact, most good journals accept only a small percentage of studies for publication. Since book authors do not undergo this kind of peer-review, it is possible for authors to go unchecked in making unsubstantiated claims. Drew is certainly entitled to his opinion that we are witnessing "a trend of growing religious disengagement, especially among the young." I'm sure that he is motivated by genuine concern. However, it is important to note that not one published study in a refereed journal has documented a dramatic falling away or abandoning of the faith in the United States.

Finally, like many commentators in secular media outlets, Drew misinterprets both the ARIS study and the Pew study. For example, in addition to finding an increase in the "religious nones," the ARIS study confirmed the extraordinary growth in evangelicalism, finding that 34 percent of Americans (approximately 100 million) are evangelical Christians. This is the same conclusion reached in one of our studies published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Dougherty, Johnson, and Polson, 2007). Interestingly, Drew did not mention this finding but rather drew upon the same old tired and wrongheaded conclusion—Americans are losing their faith.

What the ARIS survey and the Pew Forum "Religious Landscape" survey document is that religion in America is constantly changing. Some churches are growing and others are shrinking. Some regions of the country have a higher percentage of churchgoers than others. Seventy years of survey research confirms this fact. The ARIS, Pew, and Baylor surveys confirm that Americans shop when it comes to finding a church. Indeed, many Americans switch churches from time to time, but they do not in the process abandon the faith—that is why it is called "switching." People are willing to switch churches if they feel another church is a better fit. Switching is a major phenomenon and worthy of much more research and debate. But if people were abandoning the faith in significant numbers, we should have seen a dramatic rise in the number of people in America claiming to be atheists. In fact, the percentage of Americans claiming to be atheists has remained around 4 percent for more than sixty years. Switching is not an indication that Americans have abandoned or lost their faith, as many in the media and, unfortunately, a number of Christians would have us believe.

Byron Johnson is Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences, director of the Institute for Studies of Religion, and director of the Program on Prosocial Behavior, all at Baylor University. He is the author of More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More, published in May by the Templeton Press.

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