So, who’s going to church?

A Pew Survey entitled “I know what you did last Sunday”
got a lot of attention last week. In separate telephone and on-line polling, the survey shows that more people claim to attend religious services when asked by a person (36%) than online (31%).
Mark Silk looks more closely at the numbers. First, he points out that the Pew survey seems to over-report attendance. A number of studies in the 1990s that used polling, self-reporting, and actual counting of people in the seats, showed actual attendance to be in the 20s. In other words, unless attendance has increased in the last twenty years, Pew is still getting results that suggest people exaggerate their religious involvement.

Second, Silk makes another very interesting observation. The same gap between phone and online responses exists for atheists, agnostics, and nones that exists for religious people. That is to say, they feel guilty about not attending services and over-report their involvement when responding to a telephone interview.

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is this: “more respondents told the telephone interviewers that they had no religion than said so online.”

His conclusion:

What it suggests it that, as of today, Americans believe there is nothing socially undesirable about saying you don’t have a religion. To the contrary, we may be entering an era when identifying oneself as having a religion is less desirable than identifying oneself as belonging to one. And that’s true even as it remains socially desirable to go to church and believe in God.

In other words, there are more people out there there who are Catholics and Southern Baptists and Episcopalians than are prepared to admit it to someone on the telephone.

Interesting indeed!

Another Pew Survey: The numbers of religiously-unaffiliated spike again

Here is the story from Rachel Zoll of the AP. Full results of the survey are available here.

About the “nones,” now approximately 20%: They may believe in God; they may pray; they may be “spiritual but not religious.” But they do not affiliate with any religious organization nor do they want to:

Pew found overall that most of the unaffiliated aren’t actively seeking another religious home, indicating that their ties with organized religion are permanently broken.

Alan Jacobs ponders the significance of this:

The question I would ask is this: Has there been an actual increase in religiously unaffiliated people, or do people who are in fact unaffiliated simply feel more free than they once did to acknowledge that fact? My suspicion is that until quite recently a person born and baptized into the Catholic church who hadn’t attended Mass in fifteen years would still identify as a Catholic; but recently is more likely to accept his or her unaffiliated status. There is less social (and perhaps also psychological) cost in saying “I have no particular religion that I’m connected to” than there once was.

That is, the poll may reflect not a change in behavior but a change in how people think of their behavior — a change that brings their self-descriptions more closely into line with reality. And that wouldn’t at all be a bad thing: there’s always something to be said for the removal of illusions, for “reveal[ing] the situation which had long existed.”

Most striking about all this are the generational shifts. Among “millennials” the numbers are shocking. Of younger millennials (those born between 1990 and 1994), 34% claim no religious affiliation. Older millennials are only slightly more likely to be involved in organized religion (30% now compared to 26% in 2007). The number of unaffiliated Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers has also increased; the latter in spite of recent articles trumpeting the return of Boomers to church.

What are we to make of this? I think it’s right to say that part of it is that there is less stigma attached in saying one does not attend church. On the other hand, I suspect that a willingness to self-identify as non-religious reflects behavioral and attitudinal change.
Growing numbers of Americans simply don’t seem to care about institutional religion. It is irrelevant to their lives.

This certainly has enormous implications for denominations and local congregations. If large numbers of young people have no inclination to get involved in church, no interest in attending services even on Christmas or Easter, or being married in a church, that means they are seeking meaning in other places and in other ways than through traditional religious language and categories. It may be that they are not even asking questions about themselves, their lives and the world that can be engaged in religious terms.

This is what “post-Christian” culture looks like. It’s not simply a matter of a decline in prestige, power, and influence for the churches. If the trend continues, how many young adults will claim no religious affiliation 10 years from now? 50%? More?

How do we proclaim the gospel in this context? What does it mean to be church? For Anglicans, it won’t be enough to say that we offer a “via media” or that “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” People won’t understand what the former means and won’t even see the latter sign.