Losing Our Religion

Losing Our Religion

Distinctions between Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran, carry less and less import to today’s Protestants, as nondenominationalism and ‘none of the above’ rise.

New Oxford Review Notes – May 2018

Who doesn’t love statistics? Brace yourselves, because we’re about to throw a bunch at you.

Writing for Christianity Today (Feb. 20), Ryan P. Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, delves into the latest Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), a panel survey in which the same people are asked questions over an extended period of time — in this case, in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Burge highlights some interesting figures that indicate how likely our fellow countrymen are to “switch” their “religious affiliation.”

Protestantism remains the largest religious tradition in the U.S., so it is still fair to say that America is a Christian nation, in population if not in actual practice. But the release of each new dataset — whether from the Pew Forum, Gallup, Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or Harvard’s CCES — confirms the changing nature of the religious landscape in the U.S. Over the four-year span under consideration here, nearly one in six Americans (or 18.9 percent) opted out of the religion with which they had initially identified.

For the Catholic Church, the CCES has both good and bad news. Catholics, as Burge puts it, have “remained pretty attached to their tradition.” Note the ambivalence in his phrasing. Catholics are not strongly attached or even plain old attached but pretty attached to Catholicism. That’s the good news. Catholics are approximately half as likely as the rest of Americans to switch out of their religious tradition.

The bad news is that 8.8 percent of Catholics switched out. An interesting — and not insignificant — factoid is that when Catholics do switch, they by and large do not transition to any other religious tradition. This means that the Church didn’t experience significant defections to Protestant denominations: Out of the total sample of just over 2,000 Catholics, 39 became Protestants (1.95 percent). Those who did ditch the Catholic faith left Christianity entirely: 6.4 percent switched over to agnostic, atheist, or “nothing in particular.”

American Catholics’ attitude toward their tradition is not dissimilar to that Frank Sinatra tune “All or Nothing at All.” For most Catholics, “there ain’t no in between,” as Ol’ Blue Eyes crooned.

On the flip side, the Church didn’t receive a significant influx of former Protestants either. Out of the total sample of over 4,000 Protestants, only 32 converted to Catholicism (0.80 percent).

Protestants switched out of their tradition at a rate similar to Catholics: 9.1 percent. In other words, the aggregate number of Protestants in the U.S. remained relatively steady as well, compared to the national average. They too are pretty attached to Protestantism. And like their Catholic counterparts, the “vast majority” of those who leave Protestantism, writes Burge, “also become nones.”

In decades past there was something of a battle for believers, a competition for converts, between Catholicism and Protestantism. Our loss was their gain, and vice versa. Now we’re both losing out — not so much to each other anymore (though in terms of total percentage, Protestantism enjoyed greater than a two-to-one advantage over the Catholic Church in the “loss column”), but to, well, “nothing at all,” a tuning out, a turning away. The next great contest will be finding a way to call Christians back from the great void into which they are wandering.

And those who are wandering off are gaining in numbers. Writing for Scientific American (Oct. 20, 2017) about the latest update to the General Social Survey, Allen Downey, a professor of computer science at Olin College, notes that since 1990 the number of Americans with no religious affiliation whatsoever has nearly tripled, from roughly eight percent to 22 percent. Downey says that we should expect this trend to accelerate, and that by 2020 “nones” will outnumber Catholics, and by 2035 they will outnumber Protestants.

For now, however, Protestantism rules the roost. As mentioned above, it is still the largest religious tradition in the U.S., claiming the allegiance of 42 percent of our countrymen. American Protestantism projects a placid face, immovable atop its City on a Hill. But a look beneath the surface reveals chaos at its core. “Though overall Protestant figures remain relatively steady,” Burge writes, “there is a tremendous amount of turbulence inside Protestantism.” According to the CCES, of all Protestants who stayed Protestant, 16 percent jumped to a different denomination. Add that to the 9.1 percent who abandoned Protestantism altogether, and approximately 25 percent of Protestants had a different affiliation in 2014 than in 2010. That’s an astounding amount of instability!

This inner turmoil reflects what you might call a mini-revolution among the heirs of the Reformation. “Brand loyalty” is largely a thing of the past. There is a plethora of Protestant denominations — and sub-denominations and spin-off denominations and the like — from which to sample and select. But the second largest of them all is “nondenominationalism” (18.2 percent of all Protestants; Baptists hold the top spot, claiming 22.9 percent). As Burge reports, “More Protestants identify as nondenominational — a relatively recent phenomenon in church history — than Methodists (14.8%) or Lutherans (11.8%). No other Protestant denomination makes up more than 7 percent of the overall Protestant tradition.”

If the old brands are losing their luster, nondenominationalism commands even less loyalty. In fact, nondenominational Protestantism is markedly more volatile than any of the old standbys: nondenoms are more likely than any other type of Protestant to transfer. Around 24 percent of those who claimed this affiliation in 2010 had bailed out by 2014 — double the rate of Baptists and Methodists, and almost three times the rate of Lutherans and Episcopalians.

Why the discrepancy? “The best explanation for this pattern,” Burge writes, is that nondenoms “seem to know that they are Protestants” but are not “knowledgeable about what type of Protestantism” they profess. Baptist? Methodist? Lutheran? Episcopalian? Those distinctions carry less and less import to today’s Protestants, more and more of whom are selecting “none of the above.” Many of these Protestants probably couldn’t tell you what distinguishes, say, the Thirty-Nine Articles from the Augsburg Confession. We’d venture to guess that they don’t care either. “Organized religion” simply isn’t their thing. Nondenoms are probably more inclined to say they just believe in Jesus. These are the people for whom “faith” is important but who have no use for “religion.” They are a large part of the reason why the video for Jefferson Bethke’s 2012 spoken-word poem “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” went viral on YouTube and has since been viewed over 33 million times. If all you need is Jesus, there is really no need for human mediators of any kind. Thus, it’s not that far of a stroll from “none of the above” Protestantism to “nothing at all” where religion is concerned.

Therein lies the great challenge for the Catholic Church, the most organized of all Christian traditions. How can a hierarchical, rules-laden institution appeal to folks for whom organization itself is anathema?

Bl. Pope Paul VI once said, “Wanting to live with Jesus without the Church, following Jesus outside of the Church, loving Jesus without the Church is an absurd dichotomy.” Catholics know this, which helps explain why their numbers are relatively stable. Even fallen-away Catholics must retain an innate sense that this is true, which could account, at least in part, for their reluctance to join another religious tradition after abandoning the Church. There just ain’t no in between; it’s all or nothing at all.

Yesterday’s army of Catholic apologists performed an admirable, indispensable service in rising up to answer Protestant objections to Catholic beliefs and practices. But this will soon be nothing more than a nifty intellectual exercise if Downey is correct that the “nones” will overtake the Protestant majority within a generation. The question instead is: How do Catholics present the faith as distinct from Protestantism to the growing number of commitment-averse Christians for whom intra-Protestant distinctions are largely irrelevant?

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