Swimming Against the Tide: Religious (Non) Affiliation Might Not Mean What You Think It Means

If religious kitsch is a guilty pleasure, one of my favorite indulgences is a graphic that depicts a school of ichthus—the simple outline of a fish that is was an early symbol for followers of Christ—with a contemporary “evangellyfish” swimming in the opposite direction.

The caption reads, simply, “Go against the flow.”

The 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, which is being rolled out in a series of reports this year, depicts a deep shift in how Americans identify (or don’t) with religion. It’s tempting to approach the latest report, and those to follow, with attention grabbing headlines that portray the complex statistics as a simplistic counting of which way the proverbial “fish” are swimming.

To do so would be a grand mistake.

While fluctuating statistics about how American adults affiliate religiously are important, the greatest insight the latest report provides is about the water in which we are swimming.

A deeper dive into related polling data indicates that the greatest shift right now might not be in attitudes toward religion or religiously related behavior, but instead about default assumptions regarding what it means to choose (or not to choose) to affiliate religiously.

A prime example of this shift might be the structure of a key question in the Pew survey itself.

The Big Question

In Appendix C, a section many readers might have overlooked, the researchers note that, “all major religion surveys find that the unaffiliated share of the U.S. population (the percentage of religious ‘nones’) is growing rapidly.” Still, Pew’s study has higher rates for this population than any of these other surveys.

In 2014, for example, the National Opinion Research Council’s General Social Survey (GSS) put the proportion of “nones” at 21 percent of the population, while Trinity College’s American Religion Identification Survey (ARIS) counted “nones” as 20 percent of the population in 2012, compared to Pew’s own estimates of 23 percent.

While there may be many reasons for these discrepancies, the Pew researchers chose to explore just one: how the big question of affiliation is asked.

The GSS queries, “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” while ARIS asks, “What is your religion, if any?”

The Pew ask a different question: “What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?”

Pews researchers said they believe, “by explicitly offering respondents the chance to identify as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ the Religious Landscape Study question may make it easier for marginally religious people who once thought of themselves as Catholics, Protestants or members of another religious group to identify as religious ‘nones.’”

As currently worded, the questions in other surveys assume that a respondent will identify as religious unless they explicitly opt out. The Pew study claims, and I believe correctly so, that by offering additional answer options up front, respondents feel a greater sense of freedom to answer the polling questions accurately. People who previously would have felt a conscious or subconscious pressure to identify with a religion are less likely to do so.

In attempting to quantify how (and how many) Americans identify religiously today, what we’re really asking is something deeper than how many people feel like they should tell a pollster that they are religious. The more meaningful answers arise when a set of attitudes and behaviors are correlated with a religious identification.

We want to know that when people say they are Catholic, Hindu, evangelical or Jewish that those identifications mean something about how those people act and think about the world and others.

This does not mean the “rise of the nones” as detailed in this report is insignificant. Far from it. Such changes in declared identification have huge implications for society today. And yet the import and meaning of these changes are likely more nuanced than how they often are portrayed.

A mouse pad decorated with a school of ancient "ichthus" Christian symbols (and a contemporary "evangellyfish" headed in the opposite direction). Image via Zazzle.com.

A mouse pad decorated with a school of ancient “ichthus” Christian symbols (and a contemporary “evangellyfish” headed in the opposite direction). Image via Zazzle.com.

A few examples:

Self-reported church attendance is roughly the same today as in the 1940’s and did not change significantly during the time of these reports. According to a Gallup survey released in December 2013, “Nearly four in 10 Americans report that they attended religious services in the past seven days. Americans’ report of their weekly church attendance has varied over the years, but it is close now to where it was in 1940 and 1950.” That same survey showed, “Americans’ assessment of the importance of religion in their lives generally has been stable over the past four decades.”

As Pew continues to release its data over the course of the coming year, it might well find more changes than Gallup has in these other measures of religiosity, but the relative stability of these other markers do not make a case for a sudden and swift collapse of Christianity in America.

Ed Stetzer, who leads the Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated Lifeway Research  has argued that these numbers indicate a redefining of Christianity in which those who had been marginal or nominal Christians all along feel a greater comfort in simply reporting what was true about them all along, that they are unaffiliated.

The percentage of American adults who identify as “born again” or evangelical increased over the timeline of these studies. What is even more interesting than the factoid itself is that it occurred while the percentage of American adults who identify with an evangelical institution has declined.

This apparent contradiction could be explained again by the theory that more of those who were previously marginally affiliated are simply being more honest with pollsters about that fact. In contrast, being asked if you are “born again” is very different. For many people this refers to a personally transformational experience not an institutional affiliation.

Following such a line of reasoning might mean we are seeing an uptick in the number of American’s who will report a life-changing Christian experience while simultaneously being less likely to identify with any particular Christian institution. This raises questions about the complicated relationship between Americans and their willingness to affiliate with large institutions (religious and otherwise) in general.

The rate of decline in affiliation for America’s two largest protestant denominations—the Southern Baptist Convention (evangelical) and the United Methodist Church (mainline)—is roughly the same.

Declension among mainline denominations has been widely reported for some time and for good reason. From 2007 to 2014 the number of Americans who affiliate with a mainline denomination has dropped from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent. As widely reported, the UMC (the largest mainline denomination) declined by 1.5 percent during that period. Less widely reported, however, is that the Southern Baptist Convention’s population also dropped 1.4 percent during the same period.

Even less widely known is that if you look at the 10 largest protestant denominations in the country, the only one that grew during that time (at a rate of .3 percent) was the American Baptist Churches USA, which is classified as a mainline denomination.

Growth for evangelical institutions has occurred almost entirely under the auspices of the ambiguous classification of “evangelical non-denominational”. These trends in Protestantism coupled with the significant decline among those who identify as Catholic (from 23.9 percent to 20.8 percent between 2007 to 2014) indicate a deep ambivalence to the nation’s largest religious institutions.

Because of the size and notoriety of America’s largest denominations, identifying with them carries more cultural baggage than lesser known institutions. It means more in our culture to identify as, say, Catholic, Southern Baptist, or Methodist than it does to affiliate with a more obscure religious institution. This fact might contribute to the reality that those who continue to choose to affiliate as Christian are less likely to identify with the groups that have been the largest players in American Christianity.

Detail of a tapestry depicting Christ emerging from the tomb from the Vatican museums. Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

Detail of a tapestry depicting Christ emerging from the tomb from the Vatican museums. Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

The Decline of Christendom

Obviously, from the numbers and the tales they tell, American Christianity is hardly experiencing a Renaissance. But the rise of the “nones” does not equal its wide-scale collapse, either.

A better description might be that we are witnessing the decline of “Christendom.”

In this sense” Christendom” refers to the broader assumptions we imbibe, often without being fully aware, as a result of the influence of Christianity on the culture as a whole. Under Christendom, many people assumed an affiliation with Christianity unless there was a reason to do otherwise.

Under such a rubric, the rise of the nones could be interpreted primarily as a shift in cultural assumptions—that people are more likely to say “nothing in particular” unless they have a good reason to identify otherwise when asked about their religious predilections.

Pew’s forthcoming reports will provide greater depth to understanding the nature and significance of these changes. The release of these initial numbers makes one thing clear: the water is changing, and fast.


  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    When you put it that way, it seems too confusing to understand. How about breaking out one tiny part to look at and see if there is an overall trend. Atheism. Being 65, my interest is would there be any changes in this category from the 50’s, and 60’s, and through the following decades.

    I was in school in those early decades, and I recall atheist being a bad word. I don’t think any kids would ever want to be called that, and it would probably be fighting words. From those early years I can remember there was one atheist in America that we knew by name, Madalyn Murray Ohare. She was nasty, she swares, and I think everybody hated her. We took pleasure a few years later at the report that her son now believed in God.

    Now being a wiser person, I understand there were other atheists in the intellectual environment back then, but basically this was all anyone had to know about atheism. In later decades, once the moral majority kicked in of course being American and patriotic and a good person meant you were not atheist. Any atheists understood they needed to stay in the closet if they knew what was good for them.

    I think the Christian contradictions of the Bush years finally convinced people to open the door and come out. Atheists started to see they now have strength in numbers, and even though they can’t be president, they can be proud of what they are and what they believe. Their newfound confidence in their choice is continuously strengthened through interactions with Christian Americans.

    What do the polls say about atheists? How about kids in school? Has there been any national changes in attitudes in those states not in the South?

  • reido56@gmail.com' Gideon says:

    Hmm. This fits my limited experience with religious affiliation (“religious views”) on Facebook. I’ve consistently seen affiliation that’s vague or individualized. Disregarding anyone in full-time ministry, the number of times I’ve seen “Baptist” or “Methodist” listed is dwarfed by the number of times I’ve seen “Christian”, “Follower of Jesus”, “Born Again”, and so on.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Those categories are a part of the evolution of Christianity. The old denomination are no longer descriptive enough. Christian means one of the true Christians. Born Again means saved and headed for heaven. Follower of Jesus means more than just a regular Christian.

  • psywww@gmail.com' Russ Dewey says:

    You are correct to focus on the biases created by the measuring instrument. Any questionnaire constrains the choices in important ways. Even the difference between “None” and “Nothing in particular” is important. Suppose a person was deeply into Biblical scholarship and comparative religious thought and had a belief system that was consistent with science (containing no supernatural elements) but still recognized the reality and importance of spiritual experience as a real-world phenomenon, including the experience of God. What does that person put? Atheist? Not quite! Agnostic? Not really. “None” works if it means “None of the above” but not if it means “Meh, I don’t care.” Simple categories can only take you so far.

  • gilhcan@gmail.com' gilhcan says:

    Religious affiliation? When you stop to consider how shallowly most people have always affiliated with religion or any churches, what we’re seeing now is just an extension of joining what’s popular among movements. Relatively few members of churches were ever serious believers, serious practitioners, serious students of religion. They are dropping out now as it’s becoming more faddish, just as they joined and/or participated in past times because that was the fad then.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    What if someone believes all the good things in Christianity, and doesn’t believe the bad parts?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Those who follow the fads are probably better off than those who join an overly dogmatic religion, because at least they have the option of getting out of a cult.

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' GeniusPhx says:

    Believers in un-provable stories cannot wrap their heads around a person who has heard and rejects those stories as the truth. Since they cannot imagine their lives without god or religion they cant imagine a person can live without that, but we can and we do. These authors continue to make excuses why it just can’t be true that people would reject their religion, so they believe we are just acting or we really believe we are just having a crisis of faith and will come back or we will reconsider on our deathbeds (no, we wont).
    Most non religious and non believers were brought up in religious homes, we know what you know we just don’t believe it. Most of us still study religion from the outside. It’s far more interesting if you dont have a dog in the fight as this author obviously does.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Now that we are getting into the interesting questions about religion, lots of people are working to find questions that can’t be answered for us to look into.

  • “Self-reported church attendance is roughly the same today as in the 1940’s and did not change significantly during the time of these reports. ”

    And have there been any corresponding checks on the number of people actually in churches?

    My favourite reality check is claimed Christianity and ability to name the authors of the four Gospels. This tends to show the US top and bottom with numbers like 89% Christian and 29% knowing Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Against this you will get Sweden at maybe 4% Christian and 89% knowledge of the Four Evangelists.


  • psywww@gmail.com' Russ Dewey says:

    I don’t think it’s that vacuous, Jim. As a psychologist, I know that experiences are built in the brain. As such,they really exist in the real world. People need to project things to the outside in order to get some distance from ego… it’s complicated. But what people are labeling with religious words obviously corresponds to something real going on. If you believe that is important, you don’t just reject the whole thing as garbage. Joseph Campbell nailed it. I also think Spong is right on, and I noted with interest his comment, in a lecture, that he found nothing to disagree with in Dawkins! Remarkable. Don’t paint everything with the same broad brush. And, back to the thesis of the blog, questionnaires with simple, mutually exclusive categories definitely do not capture this sort of nuance.

  • heatherscholl@yahoo.com' Gemgirl says:

    The internet revolutionized atheism. You are correct, Jim, that there is strength in numbers. There is also some strength, as well, in anonymity. Threads like this on RD….and Patheos….have given us newly minted atheists a safe forum in which to speak, share and discuss. This safe discussion serves to embolden those of us who are ‘on the fence’ regarding being honest with ourselves and others. Through these threads we find not just the courage….but the verbiage and the ordered process from which to begin a real-life discussion.

    Hats off to you, Jim. Always enjoy your commentary. You are a favorite of mine. 🙂

  • alencon13@hotmail.com' Alencon says:

    You appear to overlook the growth of openly admitted atheists/agnostics. This group, at 7.1%, now outnumbers all of the non-Christian faiths combined.

    You’re essentially arguing that nothing has really changed except the wording of the question and the desire to shed cultural baggage. If that were true, then there’s no explanation for the number of atheist/agnostics almost doubling in only seven years.

    You also need to consider in what age group the greatest changes have occurred and that’s in the youngest. The number of Older Millenials, the youngest group represented in the 2007 survey, in the Unaffiliated category increased from 25% to 34%. If the same ratio holds, then approximately 11%-12% will be in the atheist/agnostic category.

    No, I don’t think this is simply a shift in “cultural assumptions.”

  • alencon13@hotmail.com' Alencon says:

    To answer your question the number of atheists/agnostics increased in the survey from 4% in 2007 to 7.1% in 2014.

    This group now outnumbers all non-Christian faiths (Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others) combined 7.1% to 5.9%. In 2007 all non-Christian faiths outnumbered atheists/agnostics 4.7% to 4%.

    In 2007 atheists/agnostics represented 25% of the Unaffiliated group. In 2014 they represents 31% of the Unaffiliated group so they’re growing faster than the Unaffiliated in general.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I suppose the number of atheists in the younger age group will continue to increase because how could you stop it? The only way would be to convince them to give their hearts to the Lord, but that seems like a long shot when they can see how that worked out for the older generations.

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    “Nones” is a category invented by Barry Kosmin, who, in addition to doing that kind of sociology, is a board member and on the speakers roster of CFI, the atheist-anti-religious promotion group. When he was interviewed about it, he said he didn’t want the numbers they reported in their surveys to make people think that religious affiliation was the norm when that’s exactly what it did show.

    I have frequently encountered blog tread atheists who claim the “nones” for atheism when even Pew’s own analysis says that more of them have some kind of religious belief than are atheists. The category began as a dishonest attempt to inflate the number of non-religious people as is the insistence on identifying that with church attendance. Pew’s 5 Facts About Prayer page has as fact #3

    For many Americans, every day is a day of prayer. More than half (55%) of Americans said they pray every day, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, while 23% said they pray weekly or monthly and 21% said they seldom or never pray. Even among those who are religiously unaffiliated, 21% said they pray daily. Women (65%) are more likely than men (46%) to pray every day. Older people (60%) are more likely than younger adults (45%) to say they pray daily.

    You will notice that even on that page the make a category of 21% who “seldom of never pray” putting together people who do pray and are definitely not atheists with people who never pray, and even some of them may not actually be atheists. I don’t know why Pew does that but they do consistently seem to be determined to pad the numbers so it will seem that atheism is a major phenomenon in American society when it is a fringe phenomenon, by their own numbers, when you look closely at them.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    It is a fringe number that has been growing from an insignificant amount up to a significant amount. The power of the atheist point of view is they don’t have to maintain any foolish beliefs, so they have an advantage in the discussion once they reach the point where they can no longer be intimidated into silence.

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    Remarkable, then, how many atheists have claimed the entire c. 20% of “nones” for atheism, when, if they’d bothered to read Pew’s own analysis of it, more of them have religious beliefs than are atheists or agnostics. As it is “it” isn’t a valid number because it is the result of a decision to put unlike things together into one category. It is a fact that the category was invented by Barry Kosmin, an active promoter of atheism, CSICOP, CFI, ect. and opponent of religion so he could avoid admitting that religious affiliation was the norm in his surveys. I haven’t heard why Pew adopted it though it has certainly gotten them into the wider media, which I suspect isn’t irrelevant to their motives.

    Oddly enough, atheists were were free to spout off in Czarist Russia, Poland, Germany, etc. and were the ones who suppressed religion when they took power. Atheists have never been silenced in the United States and Canada that I’ve ever read of. They’ve spouted off enough here enough, were made a covered class under the Civil Rights Act fifty-one years ago, by politicians who, almost to a person, were religious, almost all of them, perhaps all, professed Christians and Jews. They certainly have had their days in court to challenge practices and laws they didn’t like, though, as everyone who sues, they don’t always get their way. And that was all long, long before neo-atheism came up in the wake of 9-11.

    Atheists have an enormous number of foolish beliefs, not least of which is that they own science, the universe it describes, mathematics, logic and that they are superior to most people in the world. Not to mention enormous numbers of clearly false beliefs about history and historical figures. They also seem to widely believe science understood the essence of the universe in the past and today when anyone with any discernment would know that is far from the truth. Not to mention the many clear lies they believe.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    That must be why people hate them so much.

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    You know sometimes people hate people because of the way they act, not for their ideas alone.

    I never had any problem with atheists before about 12 years ago when I noticed what a bunch of jerks the ones I encountered online were. After they started attacking consciousness, free will, moral obligations in a way I couldn’t ignore and realizing that their ideology was death to both liberalism (in the American sense of the word) and democracy, I started reading them more intensively than I had before. It’s a pretty putrid ideology, and that’s only going by what atheists have said about it. Nietzsche, Haeckel, McCabe, Ayers, Russell, Lamont, Kurtz, Randi, Jillette, etc. the ones I’ve read to form my opinions of the real nature of atheism.

    There are atheists I don’t hate, some I even admire, but not for thinking their ideas on moral obligations, free will, consciousness, for other reasons. I’ve voted for an atheist at least four times, but I knew him and knew he wasn’t the common brand of atheist-materialist true believer in scientism.

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