The most recently published findings of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have been garnering attention for one principal reason, and receiving insufficient attention for a less evident one. To take the more obvious reason first, the latest research shows that religious allegiance in the United States is much weaker than most people suppose, or even suspect. When I say “weaker,” I mean that the survey seems to show that millions of Americans have either abandoned the faith in which they were brought up, or have switched to another one, or have no particular faith at all. (More on these variations of faithlessness in a moment.) But I would add that the research has no method for testing or measuring how strongly or decidedly the adherents of religion(s) actually cling to their beliefs, so that to describe somebody as, say, a “Baptist” may mean no more than that a given person sometimes goes to a Baptist church.
Here is how just some of the Pew findings were summarized:
More than one quarter of American adults (28 percent) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion—or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44 percent of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.
There’s extremely little surprise here for those of us who travel the country debating so-called persons of faith. And just look at the categories that Pew itself is compelled to employ. We learn, for instance, that there is a specifically Protestant allegiance that is described as “historically black.” What can this possibly mean? That some people are black because they are Protestant or Protestant because they are black? Neither conclusion makes any sense, though it would not take a very acute social historian to conclude that Christianity had a long coexistence with segregation—hardly an aspect of the supernatural or the revelatory.
If someone lists themselves as a Reform Jew or a Unitarian or a Quaker, are we safe to conclude that he or she is in fact religious? Try asking any member of those congregations about the spiritual dimension, the afterlife, creationism, or the power of prayer. You are very likely to get secular answers. Then again, ask someone why he or she attends (say) a Greek Orthodox church. The overwhelming likelihood will be that Greek ethnicity is the whole explanation. Could one expend ink on the absurd idea that there is a separate kind of Orthodox Christianity for Greeks, Serbs, Russians, Bulgarians, and so forth? And how different is it from the idea of a form of Christianity that is “historically black” or (presumably, if that term can be allowed) “historically white”? At least those who profess allegiance to Rome say that they are “Catholic,” which means “universal,” but how many of them would go to one church rather than another if they were not Irish, Polish, Croatian, or Italian?
Much the same applies to huge numbers of alleged “Protestants” who tell us that they are Episcopalians, Adventists, Methodists, and so forth. How much if anything do they know about what their churches really profess, and how much of their loyalty is social, familial, or geographic? It always makes me laugh when people tell me—and you, too, have heard it often enough—that “I was raised Congregational but my wife’s folks were Mormons so I went that direction,” or “I’m Lutheran but my husband is Catholic, and we’ve agreed to raise the kids his way.” Do these people have no idea how much used to hang on the differences between Wesley, Luther, Miller, Smith, Augustine, and Aquinas? How choice of religion was once a life-and-death matter, in this world and the next? Presumably they have lost their grip on this, or else they would not keep swapping their places of worship as if they were looking for a new bargain at the supermarket. (The term Churchianity was coined recently to cover those who are so mindlessly impressionable that they really do go shopping for the most attractive ministries.)
I come last of all to the 16.1 percent who declare no allegiance, or rather who describe themselves as “unaffiliated.” If true, this would make nonbelievers the fastest-growing minority in the American population, and this in turn would constitute a challenge to the media’s habit (and the habit of our politicians) of assuming that everybody should be addressed in “faith” terms. Pew would have us believe that “nearly one in five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly thirteen per cent of women.” I agree that it is high time that our mass media and our would-be elected leaders deferred more to those who don’t identify with any religion. But I am absolutely sure that just as many real doubters and infidels are to be found concealed within the apparent majority that Pew’s routine census-takers are not equipped even to ask about, let alone to discover.