Christians call their religion the “good news,” but there’s even better news today in the form of an explosive new survey about religious and spiritual opinions in America: we’re getting less religious and more accepting of reality. Who’d’a thunk?
Harris Interactive is apparently a big polling and research company based in the US. They do surveys on everything from sports to technology to healthcare to which Christmas special we like best, and have been doing so since the 1960s. I couldn’t find a lot of criticisms of their work beyond the linked one. For a while now they’ve been doing a religion poll to measure Americans’ engagement with spirituality. These are fairly large polls that have been repeated regularly over the last 10 years, so we’ve got a good bird’s-eye look at the landscape here.
Notably, the most recent poll reflects a growing disenchantment with Christianity and a growing disengagement from the religion and its tenets. In just shy of ten years, we’ve gone from 82% of respondents saying they believed in “God” in surveys done in 2005, 2007, and 2009–identical levels of belief, even–to just 74% saying they had this belief.
Also, while majorities also believe in miracles (72%, down from 79% in 2005), heaven (68%, down from 75%), that Jesus is God or the Son of God (68%, down from 72%), the resurrection of Jesus Christ (65%, down from 70%), the survival of the soul after death (64%, down from 69%), the devil, hell (both at 58%, down from 62%) and the Virgin birth (57%, down from 60%), these are all down from previous Harris Polls.
Actually, it seems like just about the only increase anywhere was in the number of folks who accept the Theory of Evolution–that went from 42% to 47% acceptance.
Certainty in the existence of what the survey writers called “God” dropped off rather sharply as well, going from 79% “absolutely/somewhat certain there is a God” to only 68% feeling that certain in 2013. That’s huge–one in ten respondents suddenly decided they’re not as sure of that idea as they used to be. And the percentage of people who are “absolutely/somewhat certain there is no God” went up 7%, from 9% to 16%. That’s a quick and humongous change as well.
The drop-off in spiritual beliefs is quite startling–we really are seeing some major shifts here in how Americans engage with spirituality. As you might think, differences in levels of belief are even more striking when we look at age groups–the younger the respondent, the lower the chance that person would hold religious or spiritual beliefs.
I saw with interest that this survey noticed as well that some beliefs actually did go up, notably beliefs in reincarnation, astrology, UFOs, and ghosts–not by much, but a little. I can definitely see that–these beliefs are a sort of folk spirituality in a lot of ways, and as people disengage from organized religion, it seems natural that they might gravitate to other beliefs. Moreover, without organized religion’s influence in condemning those folk beliefs, people might not be as immunized against the idea of them like they were once–as little immunization as that was, at least it was something.
Now, before we go a lot further, I’m going to add my obligatory “I am not a statistician” disclaimer here. The survey was done online, which just about screams self-selection bias to me, and if I remember my church days right, not all super-duper-fundies might have computer access to begin with (whatever you might think after hanging out on YouTube for a few minutes). But since the poll was done in the same way over the last 10 years, the numbers look pretty stable, and the results jibe with what I’m seeing around me in society.
Evangelical hand-wringing over lowering numbers of believers has been a topic we’ve tackled here on this blog before now, but this poll really puts things in sharp focus for me. And I caught this story about the downfall of Robert Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral right as I was hearing about the poll; this well-researched article very succinctly captures the changing face of Christianity in America. Its author notes that while evangelical Christianity was once the most visible and dominant Christian movement in the country some 10 years ago (and I’d argue maybe even 20 years ago–I was in college right when the movement got rolling with churches like Maranatha), at this point there are fewer people identifying as evangelical than there are identifying as Nones. The author goes on to say that the decline in numbers has less to do with general secularization in America and perhaps
more from a change in American Christianity itself, a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse evangelical luminaries such as Schuller once rode to success.
Exhaustion. That word really spoke to me. It captured perfectly what I’ve been seeing and hearing from other people, from those who are Christians and those who are long out and those who are newly-deconverted and those who’ve never believed. We’re exhausted.
Evangelicals are known now more for what they disapprove of and who they hate than about who or what they love. They have a super-simplified theology that is both narcissistic and childishly self-serving. And their tactics are geared more toward peeling back other groups’ gains in liberty and freedom and less toward the social justice and charity work that Christianity’s purest expression seems best suited for.
Now that Americans are less receptive to their message, evangelical leaders are heading to Russia and Uganda to spread their message of hatred, degradation, and dehumanization of those they don’t approve of. At home, the rank and file are campaigning to roll back women’s rights. They’re trying their best to stop gay people from getting full civil rights. They’re lobbying to protect the jobs of people who are racist, bigoted assholes using their religion to hurt others. They’re lining up at fast-food joints to show their support of homophobic CEOs and writing and speaking out against the mean ole’ guvmint for forcing companies to give all employees a full range of family-planning options. And that’s while they’re not shaming young people about their bodies and emergent sexuality, bullying gay people, and brainwashing their daughters into accepting second-citizen status.
That kind of hate is exhausting just to witness and be subjected to–I can’t even imagine how exhausting it is to pursue it.
It’s no wonder that the Barna Group leader quoted in that piece noted that only three percent of non-Christians under the age of 30 actually have good impressions of Christianity. Thirty years ago that number was more like 25% among young people.
We’re just exhausted.
We know that evangelical theology is overly simplified, but that the reality of Christianity is much more complex and nuanced. We know that evangelical Christianity’s truth claims–about science, about history, about how people operate, about how relationships should work–aren’t true at all. We know that evangelical leaders fall constantly and one might even say inevitably in dramatic blowouts of shocking episodes of scandal, putting the lie to their insistence that their way of life is more moral or “godly.” We see the constant deaths of children because these evangelicals think beating kids is a great way to raise them and that vaccinations are demonic; we see constant streams of abused women who’ve experienced, like I did once, what a “godly marriage” really looks like behind closed doors. We know that evangelicalism’s emphasis on shame and “purity” is harmful to people. We know that the system itself does not work to produce people who are more loving, moral, or kind than other groups of people. We know that evangelicalism, as wielded by most evangelicals, seems to exist solely to perpetuate privilege and reclaim lost dominance over groups that no longer feel compelled to obey.
We know all these things, and folks, I don’t know about you, but it’s just exhausting to watch them try to lord it over me and to constantly make untrue claims and to act hateful and bigoted while they smile their big ole Jesus smiles and parrot that needs-to-die-miserably magic “get out of hatred free” card about how they “love the sinner and hate the sin” under the false assumption that just saying it immunizes them from the consequences of their hateful behavior toward others.
About the only people who are fooled anymore about evangelical Christianity are those who need that mindset to feel superior to others–the ones who need to be smug, to be right, to be better, to be dominant. The rest of us know that almost all of the major platforms of evangelicalism are not based around love at all.
Where did this type of Christianity, so antithetical to anything in the Bible, so completely wrongheaded and hateful, even come from?
I reckon it came out of the 1980s, with that “greed is good” social ethos and that sudden rejection of the social-justice values of the 1960s that marked both that earlier decade and Christianity’s focus (like with the Jesus People). Suddenly we wanted to be entertained and abdicated our adulthoods. Our favorite desserts became gooey, achingly sweet confections of chocolate and whipped cream. Our favorite music became boppy and largely meaningless. Our favorite movies tended to be pure escapism. We put brand names on our butts and shirt pockets and paid to advertise for the companies making our clothes. More than a few of us got into cocaine and had “power lunches.” We put style way ahead of substance and learned that it didn’t matter what we did, only what we wore and how we acted. Talking a big game meant more than actually accomplishing anything or being accurate about whatever we were talking about.
When I became a Southern Baptist, that brief summer of my 16th year in the mid-80s, I was enchanted at first with how energetic the Christians around me acted. They were on fire! This was not my Catholic class or Sunday School by a longshot. The church was huge–it was several stories with a labyrinth of halls and conference rooms and classrooms. They’d bought a Safeway across the street to convert into a “youth center” that would have a bowling alley and “teen hangout” (do they still have those nowadays? They were a big deal when I was in high school in the 1980s–one cryptically called “Angles” opened right around the corner from my school, though I never visited it).
I was simply overwhelmed by all the things there were to do in that church, but ultimately, the gung-ho peppy feel-good message didn’t satisfy me. It felt so plastic–when it wasn’t being judgmental of others. I began to perceive that most of the church’s outreach seemed to center around building membership rolls–which seemed to me like a blatant attempt to grab more money. After I left, I continued to get their handy-dandy pre-printed tithe envelopes for years after I’d last darkened their doors–until I finally wrote a frustrated letter to them asking them to please quit sending them. I don’t remember anybody trying to talk to me when I drifted out or find out why I had left. But they were still sending me tithe envelopes in the hopes that I’d send them money. Later on I would learn that they would grow to 17,000 members, making them one of the largest congregations in the United States, but at the time I was a member, long before they’d hit those sorts of numbers, I wasn’t even sure what the pastor’s name was–and I’m pretty sure he didn’t know who I was either.
A 2011 community newspaper notes that the church had a big outdoor baptism celebration in honor of its 45th year of existence, incidentally; the pastor says the day was quite a miracle because it’d been super-hot–you know, like Texas gets that time of year, and I’m sure the church had kinda known that it might get toasty as they’d been in Texas for a good long time–and just as things were getting rolling, his god sent a nice big cloud to block the sun and make the day cooler. It’s a MIRKUL! All those starving kids, religiously-persecuted folks, rape victims, and beaten-up gay folks around the world surely don’t mind if this guy’s god totally ignored their anguished cries so some wealthy white first-world evangelicals could get a cooling breeze for their big-ass party. Yes, it is simply exhausting for me to read about privilege blindness like that. Exhausting and sickening. I don’t know how he could say something that narcissistic with a straight face. They raised over three million dollars on one day, and it all went to make their worship mega-center even bigger and fancier. It is easy to see this church’s members and leaders as the spiritual cronies of the creator of the ostentatious Crystal Cathedral.
It’s all about wealth–when it isn’t all about oppressing people and expressing hate and disapproval.
I can easily see even evangelicals themselves getting exhausted with this kind of hypocrisy and rampant self-glorification. They must be, if the numbers are anything to go by; evangelicals are bleeding members–especially disillusioned young people–so fast it’s dizzying to behold.
I know I once wondered where that “light yoke” had gone off to that the Bible promised. I wondered when the “easy burden” turned into this constant merry-go-round of terror and shame, when a religion of peace and love became one of judgement, moralizing, and strong-arming. I ended up leaving. It looks like I’m not the only one; you know I’ve mentioned the rates at which young Christians especially are leaving Christianity, and this piece still puts disengagement at the shocking figure of 2/3 of evangelicals in their 20s leaving the church entirely before they hit 30. If you still attend church, think about that one next time you’re in the pews–two out of three of the young Christians you see around you won’t be in church at all within the next 10 years.
To me, that’s good news. I see evangelical Christianity as a cancer upon the world. It is the polar opposite of whatever the myths about Jesus were supposed to teach.
The really strange thing is that this poll isn’t really pinging the radar much of Christians themselves. You’d expect something this earth-shattering, this hugely important, to be resonating through the Christosphere like the after-tremors of an atom bomb. But no. I went trolling through several news sites: Christian Post, Christianity Today, Charisma News, nope, nothing. The generally-more-fair-minded Religion News Service had a piece about Nones, but didn’t really mention the Harris Poll at all. Religion Dispatches, which I like for its ecumenical outlook and really awesome commenting community, had nothing about it either, though I got stuck on a fascinating piece about how the romantic ideal of “the one” might not be very Christian, which we will be talking about really soon because holy cow it’s interesting stuff, so if you want to get a jump on the rest of the gang, feel free to read it over. But of the Harris Interactive Poll? I found nothing in my usual stomping grounds.
I admit, I am baffled here. This is a big deal to me. This is a huge, big, shaping-ideas sort of poll that got done, and for some crazy reason none of the news outlets seem that worried about it. And it’s not that they don’t like the Harris Interactive folks either–most of these sites carried some pieces about other surveys they’ve done–like the one about what Christmas special we like most (“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which just shows most people have no taste because we all know it should be “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”), or about how many of us are going to do last-minute shopping (a honking lot of us, and please don’t ask because my answer would only distress us both). But this survey’s been out now for a week and nobody’s really talking about it.
Maybe I shouldn’t be that confused.
One cannot fix a problem one can’t see or define. If one has a problem one does not want to fix, then refusing to even see that there’s a problem is probably going to be a big part of the coping strategy.
Before Christianity can heal its image problem–and that’s assuming Christians even want to do that, which is by no means a sure thing, its adherents need to understand exactly how much their whining, complaining, moaning, and unmitigated and shameless grab for power and control has tired the rest of us out. I don’t know about y’all, but I don’t trust zealots at all. I don’t trust their truthfulness, honesty, morality, or motivations. Nor do I care in the least what a zealot thinks about anything I do or don’t do–and I suspect my case of fatigue is hardly unique.
I welcome efforts to reform this sick religion into something good for humanity. I hope that the reformers can do it. At the moment, I see what was once a kinder, gentler version of fundamentalism morphing into something that is getting more polarized and inhumane by the day. I vacillate between hoping this Titanic can be turned and rejoicing in seeing people trying to turn it to thinking there is just no way it can ever be turned and sorrowing for those who are wasting their precious lifetimes in the attempt.
Ultimately, this poll shows that people will, to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, do the right thing–after they’ve exhausted all other options. Slowly things are getting better, even if it feels like a half-step back for each step forward. And that’s a nice present to get on this wintry Christmas Eve.
We’re going to talk about “logical Christians” next: those Christians who need the religion to be objectively true so much that they’re willing to go to intellectual contortions that would simply astound outsiders. I’ve mentioned before that I really don’t get along with “logical Christians,” and next time, I’m going to be talking about why that is. I’ve got conspiracy theories, endtimes theology, and a bunch of other fun stuff queued up and hope to see you there. Merry Christmas, if I don’t see you tomorrow. May your holiday be what you want most, and may you spend the day with those you love doing what you love most. Hearts and puppies to you all.