True or False: Less Religion Means Greater Diversity?

Making hay with the mildly controversial Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) yesterday released an infographic showing ethnic distribution of religious unaffiliation or affiliation across generational categories, adding a bit of kindling to the ongoing conversation among religious sorts about how to hold on to Millennials in light of the white, Boomer-and-beyond stronghold on religious institutions.

Data like these are always engaging, especially with a delightful, refreshing beverage. But this new data set tells little that most religionists didn’t already know—while it might actually skew our understanding.

The PRRI infographic illustrates, that is, that the percentage of younger people who claim no religious affiliation is on the rise. At the same time, it shows that percentages of those in any age category who do claim a religious affiliation are more likely to be white, this pale religious reality growing dramatically with age.

The coupling of affiliation and ethnic data as presented here, however, significantly confuses the categories and, in doing so, muddies the picture of religious affiliation and unaffiliation in America.

This happens in a couple of ways. First, PRRI’s stacked chart (below), in which percentages are relative to one another within a category, can create the impression that, in raw numbers, there are more unaffiliated Millennials (18-30) than there are Gen X-ers (30-49) or Boomers (50-64).

A bar that shows 31 percent clearly represents more people than does one showing 22, 16, or 11 percent, right?



Image courtesy PRRI

But this is actually not the case. In fact, people aged 18 to 30 made up just north of 21% of the U.S. population in 2013, according the U.S. Census Bureau, while folks between the ages of 30 and 49 comprised nearly 35% of the population:

[Source: United States Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS) Database, accessed Feb. 6, 2014 at Population sums shown are in thousands.]

What this means in raw numbers is that the 30% of Millennials who are religiously unaffiliated (15.86 million) are a somewhat smaller group than the 22% of GenXers (17.95 million) who are unaffiliated. Further, in terms of percentages, twice as many 18 to 29 year olds (31%) as 50-64 year olds (11%) is unaffiliated.

But, though Boomers make up a smaller number of the unaffiliated than do either GenXers or Millennials, there are a lot of them. So yes, younger people are more likely than Americans over 30 to be unaffiliated, but—counter-intuitively, perhaps—there are more unaffiliated among the over-30 population.

In the end, I can’t help but think that it might not be that useful to image religious affiliation, or unaffiliation, as a generational phenomenon.

After all, affiliation itself is unfolding in very different ways. Even Atheists—counted in most data sets as “unaffiliated—are going to church these days. Holding up shocking demographic percentages surely doesn’t tell the story of the religious shift through which we’re all living.

White People Come in All Ages

By a similar because-math logic, the identifiable whiteness of the religiously affiliated in the PRRI categories for people over age 30 is more pronounced than among the Millennials.

There are higher percentages of white GenXers, Boomers, and Silents who claim religious affiliation. Thus, the PRRI report amplifies the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in American Christianity in particular, highlighting, for instance, the fact that, by percentage, “seniors are about three times more likely than Millennials to identify as white Catholic” [emphasis added].

In real numbers, though, the difference is between some 3.6 million Millennials and 7.4 million Silents who identify as “white Catholic.” That doubling across generational populations is surely not nothing—and, hey, I’m a fan of speaking strongly to the effects of the whitening of American Christianity within churches and well beyond. But the gap here is perhaps not more “dramatic” than any astute observer of American religion would expect.

More importantly, the conflation of racial and affiliation data in the infographic leaves unexplored the pronounced lack of diversity among the unaffiliated as well.

It is here that the visually-compelling data-blending may become more obfuscating than just confusing.

Among the affiliated, race is distinguished. So, you can see that older religiously affiliated are more white. But there’s no comparable distinction within the unaffiliated, who are mostly white as well (71%). The way the data is presented—mixing affiliation and race—can make it appear that the unaffiliated are a part of a more diverse America, while the affiliated are old white folks. That’s not exactly the case.

For we must also bear in mind that some 71% of the unaffiliated are also white, according to the Pew “Nones on the Rise” study. That means nearly three quarters of the Millennials in the PRRI study who identified as unaffiliated—22 of the total 31%—are white.

To my mind, the trouble with this data-muddling is to suggest that racism might be a feature of an aging, lily white American Christianity that the nation will naturally grow out of as the old folks shuffle off this mortal coil—taking their churches with them.

Nothing in the PRRI data or, for that matter, U.S. Census, General Social Survey, Pew, or other reliable data sets, tells that particular story. Certainly, nothing in more recent ethnographic studies that highlight a robust, if eclectic, American engagement in spirituality and religion within and outside conventional schemes of affiliation even hints at such a narrative.

I have to wonder, then, what exactly we’re being sold in terms of religious diversity and racial equality when we’re presented with a sparkling blend of data over amber waves of grain to the tune of commercialized American moral progress.