I thought it might be helpful to illustrate the information I gave in my last post in chart form to help bring some clarity to the situation. The first chart is the religious trends in the U.S. based on the ARIS. Keep in mind that Kevin Slater cherry-picked that data by comparing only the numbers from 1990 and 2008 for everybody except atheists (for which there was no number in 1990), leaving out the important figures from 2001.
As you can see from this first chart, the trend for Catholics and generic Christian churches has reversed since 2001 against the total population. While neither group has reached the same percentage of the population as in 1990, they are both trending that direction. By simply taking the percentage from 1990 and 2008, however, this important trend is entirely overlooked. Mainline churches, by contrast, have plummeted and are trending sharply downwards. As we’ll see in the second chart, this is true not only as a percentage of the adult population, but also in terms of raw numbers. Baptists continue to decline as a percentage of the population, though their numbers are still growing and the rate of decline as percentage of the population has slowed significantly. Those reporting no religion increased slightly as a percentage of the population from 2001 to 2008, but not at nearly as sharp a rate as in the 90s. The number of atheists rose slightly, though it’s worth noting that the rate of growth of atheists as a percentage of the population is actually about the same as the poll’s margin of error.
Looking at the second chart is perhaps more revealing, since it gives actual number of adherents rather than just percentage of the population. Slater claimed at one point that “attendance is down almost across the board.” This is just factually incorrect. Actually the only group which has lost in terms of number of adherents since 1990 is mainline Protestants. Every other group has grown with the most notable growth coming among Catholics and generic Christians. Generic Christians actually recovered from a decline in the 90s and exploded with growth in the seven year period between 2001 and 2008. If you’re wondering what a generic Christian is, it seems to be basically non-denominational Christian or Bible churches.
Why is all of this important? Well, first I think it’s important for believers to understand the times that we live in. It can be discouraging to think that the country is going to hell in a hand basket, and reading articles like the one by Kevin Slater might give the impression that we’re fighting a losing battle. But a closer examination actually gives the impression that what has been happening since 2001 looks more like a religious revival than any kind of a decline. Why isn’t anyone talking about this?
Another reason I think it’s important is to call attention to the kind of gerrymandering of information that often goes on in the media. As we’ve often seen in recent years, narratives are very important in the media in terms of how things are presented. A big part of the liberal, secular narrative is that religion is going to become less and less important to people and will experience a steady decline. A lot of people are waiting expectantly for this to happen in the U.S. the way it has supposedly happened in Europe. As a result, anything that gives the appearance of it happening here is reason for celebration among the liberal elites. But as the ARIS shows, whatever happened in the 90s is no longer happening.
Now it’s entirely possible that Christianity will decline significantly in the U.S. at some point in the future. What’s interesting to me is that the Christian worldview doesn’t depend on the number of Christians increasing – it only depends on the message of the Gospel being spread around the world. I believe that as that happens the number of Christians will increase, but the Bible also predicts that many will fall away. Secularism, on the other hand, really depends on the number of secular people (ie. atheists and agnostics) increasing. In fact, most secular thinkers expected this to happen a long time ago. The fact that it hasn’t happened and isn’t showing any signs of happening in most of the world (where religion is actually growing) is what has caused most sociologists to decide that secularization theory has been disproven. I believe this in itself demonstrates the inadequacy of the secular worldview. However, in the popular thinking of most secular liberals, secularization theory is just a fact that will eventually be empirically demonstrated. While it’s difficult to overcome the blind faith of secular liberals, it will be interesting to see at what point they decide that their worldview is in tatters.