If you read the breathless coverage earlier this week from the mainstream press over the Pew Research Center’s newest Religious Landscape Study, you might believe that religion in America is in deep trouble – specifically Christianity, from which we’re told millennials are fleeing en masse:
“Millennials leaving the church in droves, study finds,” CNN splashed across its website. “Millennials are giving up on organized religion,” proclaimed Business Insider. “Big drop in share of Americans calling themselves Christian,”crowed the New York Times.
As Scooby-Doo might say: Ruh-roh.
The headlines may sound grim, but believers need not be troubled – a deeper analysis of the findings shows that not only have reports of Christianity’s imminent death been greatly exaggerated, we may be seeing early evidence of a pendulum swing that could lead countless souls back to the Church in the years to come.
First of all, about that “sharp drop” in Christian belief? Let’s see what Pew has to say about it:
“To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith,” Pew admits in a summary of its findings (emphasis mine). “But … the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014.”
So, while roughly 784 out of every 1000 Americans identified as Christian in 2007, only 706 said the same in 2014?
Now, to be fair, any decline in the number of Christian faithful is cause for concern. But let’s look more closely at the data. Where did all these Christians go? Have they turned their backs on God completely?
According to Pew, not exactly. During the same time period from 2007 to 2014, the number of people describing themselves as "unaffiliated" with any religion rose roughly six percent. But only three percent of American adults describe themselves as atheist. The rest of the "unaffiliated" are either agnostic or "nothing in particular," meaning they haven’t ruled out belief in a higher power, they just don’t identify with a specific church.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of evangelical LifeWay Research, speculated in an essay for USA Today that the apparent decline in Christianity may be a matter of semantics more than faith. Noting a recent Gallup poll that found Americans attend weekly church services at about the same rate today as they did in the 1940s, Stetzer argued that the only difference between then and now is that today, people are less likely to feel cultural pressure to hide their religious apathy from others, resulting in a decrease in the number of "Christians in name only" who claim the faith, but do not practice it.
"Simply put, the strains of a funeral dirge aren’t being played at the graveside of American Christianity because there is no body for burial," Stetzer wrote. "Those who value their faith enough to wake up on Sunday morning and head to their local church are mostly still going. … Christianity and the church are not dying, but they are being more clearly defined."
Perhaps the most interesting findings in the Pew study, however, came from speaking to adults who were raised in atheist or unaffiliated households. While one out of every five people who grew up in religious homes now identify as non-religious, nearly half of those raised in non-religious homes grew up to become believers.