The stats are given as often and with as much confidence as they are wrong. The story goes that our nation is growing more secular with every passing day. Christianity is tanking, and atheists and generic non-believers mushrooming. The Daily Wire proclaimed that last week, with the headline, “God Help Us; Atheism Becomes Largest Religion In U.S.” CNN just reported something similar: “There Are Now as Many Americans Who Claim No Religion as There Are Evangelicals and Catholics.”
It’s not true. Not even close.
If you ask anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to what’s happening with religious faith in America, they will tell you with the confidence that the Nones (those reporting no particular faith) have grown by leaps and bounds, marking a growing secularization in America. This is not true either.
Journalists who tell us they are endlessly suspicious and dig into the depths of a story to bring simple folks like us “the TRUTH” have largely only done journalism by press release on this topic, and the falsehoods get repeated over and over again. But if one digs just a bit deeper into the larger body of research, it is unavoidably clear how incorrect most have gotten the story. Let me demonstrate by observing just three points.
Nones Aren’t New at All
First, the “nones” are certainly not a new group of unbelievers exiting the pews of our nation’s churches. They are merely a group who are identifying more accurately what they have always been, those without any real religious practice.
Dr. Ed Stetzer, who holds the distinguished Billy Graham Chair of Church, Missions, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, has given one of the best clarifying explanations of the nones that I’ve seen. In USA Today, he wrote that “Christianity isn’t collapsing, it’s being clarified.”
He is precisely right. He further explains, “Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed.” This is the precise secret to understanding what’s going on. Weak Christianity is getting weaker and robust, and orthodox Christianity is getting stronger in terms of adherents, if not by theological maturity.
The nones are simply those who until recently would have identified with a Christian denomination just because that’s what their family has always been. But their pastors know they are just CEO Christians (Christmas and Easter Only). Beyond that, it’s crickets attendance-wise. Even though most are inactive, many do hold some cold-to-lukewarm Christian beliefs in the back of their minds. According to Pew, almost a third say that religion is indeed important to them. So the nones are not some new and growing crowd of atheists, agnostics, or unbelievers.
Other leading sociologists of religion report the same thing. Rodney Stark of Baylor University, one of the world’s leading and most distinguished scholars in this field, gives the same explanation in his important book, “The Triumph of Faith: Why the World Is More Religious Than Ever”: “Today, when asked their religious preference, instead of saying Methodist or Catholic, now a larger proportion of non-attenders say ‘none,’ by which they most seem to mean ‘no actual membership.’”
Stark gets more precise: “The entire change [toward none-ness] has taken place with the non-attending group.” “In other words,” he adds, “this change marks a decrease only in nominal affiliation, not an increase in irreligion.” Stark says the wealth of data he has studied, as well as that his peers have, “does not support claims for increased secularization, let alone a decrease in the number of Christians. It may not even reflect an increase in those who say they are ‘nones.’” We will see additional support for his conclusion below.
In fact, the good folks at the Pew Research Center find that only 12 percent of young and older adults who say they no longer hold to the Protestant and Catholic faith said they had any kind of meaningful faith in their childhood. This is very significant. These are folks simply shedding what they never really had in the first place. Again, it’s more of a honest change in identification rather than actual belief.
This means that most kids who have gained a meaningful faith will carry that faith into adulthood. Some very recent research conducted jointly at Harvard and Indiana University supports Pew’s conclusion. These sociologists of religion find that the apparent growth of the nones is “solely a function of the decline in moderate religion.”
In fact, Professor Barry A. Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, the man who coined the term “the nones,” expresses frustration that the larger press has not really gotten the story right on what belief group is actually seeing the largest size increase. He told me, “The rise of nondenominational Christianity is probably one of the strongest [religious growth] trends in the last two decades” in the United States.
He added that the percentage gain among the “nons,” or nondenoms, is “many times larger” compared to those we have come to know as the nones. Read that again. The growth of nondenominational churches has been many times larger than that of the nones. Is it likely that one group that is growing—the nones—are gaining folks from a particular group that is growing at even greater pace? That answer would be no.
Greg Smith, the long-time associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, adds heft to the conclusion that evangelicalism is actually growing. He confidently explains that while the more liberal mainline churches have been tanking dramatically, losing from 5 to 7.5 million members since 2007 (!), things are completely different for evangelical and non-denominational churches.
I would say, that particularly compared with other Christian traditions in the United States, Evangelicalism is quite strong. … If you look at Christianity as a whole … the share of Protestants in the United States who are Evangelicals, if anything, growing.
The Harvard/Indiana University researchers found the same thing, explaining “evangelicals are not on the decline” but “grew from 1972 when they were 18 percent of the population, to a steady level of about 28 percent” from the late 1980s to the present. This “percentage of the population” measure is very significant because it shows not only growth in terms of real numbers, but enough growth to keep up with or even exceed the rate of population growth. That’s not nothing.
The United States Is Not Becoming More Secular
Second, the United States is not growing more secular. The Harvard/Indiana University sociologists wanted to test the “secularization thesis,” the idea that modern life, cultural advancement, the abundance of material possessions, and the dominance of a scientific worldview inevitably translate into a culture where religion becomes increasingly irrelevant and relegated to the blue-hair pensioners and a few superstitious, anti-science hangers-on.
These two scholars asked whether this thesis was indeed true for America, and tested the assumption using some sophisticated measures. Their findings? It’s certainly not what most would have guessed.
What made their study unique was that they measured not only faith practices and beliefs—things like prayer habits, church attendance, and one’s view of the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible—but also the intensity of faith, the seriousness with which people practiced and believed these things, thus being able to distinguish between the dabblers from the diligent disciples. These two scholars’ findings were clear and remarkably counterintuitive. In the introduction of their study, they let their readers know point blank:
We show that rather than religion fading into irrelevance as the secularization thesis would suggest, intense religion—strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism and evangelicalism—is persistent, and in fact, only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.
Get that? “Only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States,” which is precisely what Stark and Pew found. Their findings show, as they explain, “the United States has demonstrated sustained levels of intense religiosity [of which they mean Christianity primarily] across key measures over the past decades that are unique when compared to other advanced, industrial societies.” They describe “a patently persistent level of strong affiliation … a very stable trend line,” confidently stating that the United States is a marked exception and distinguished counterexample to the secularization thesis.
Thus, Christian faith in America that takes scripture and the spiritual disciplines seriously has remained strongly vibrant right up to the present day. In fact, the data shows that believers who pray many times a day have increased by more than 8 percent since 1991, and those who attend church services more than once a week rose slightly. Pew Research Center findings show the same thing over the last decade.
Atheists Are Not More Numerous Than Theists
Third, not only are we not an increasingly secular nation, there is certainly not an atheism revival as the Daily Wire claimed. There are not more atheists in America than adherents of any other religion. Not anywhere close.
Their mistake was assuming that those who report no particular faith are indeed atheists. That leap is as large as it is incorrect. Most nones are not strict or even convictional unbelievers per se. They are mostly drifters and non-joiners, even as about a third admit that faith is important to them.
The latest year for which Pew has figures, only 3 percent of the U.S. population identifies as atheist. Yes, there has been a sizable increase here over the last decade, but that’s up from only 1.6 percent of all adults.
All in all, it’s a ripple—and this was during the glory days of the atheist revival spurred by the burst of popularity in the writings of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. Comparatively, if you could fit all the serious Christians in the United States on a couple of Greyhound buses, all the atheists could fit in the backseat of a Prius with room to spare.
Robust Christianity is not shrinking, not even among young adults. It is holding quite firm and even growing in many important ways. It is increasingly liberalized, orthodoxy-denying, and lukewarm faith that’s tanking as if it has a mill stone around its neck.
Don’t believe the alarmist Chicken Littles who say real Christianity is going the way of the VHS player. The best research from the leading academics shows them wrong time and again. It’s just that many of our most vocal commentators and journalists are not doing the needed due diligence to dig deeper into the larger literature on the topic. If they did, they would find a very different story: One of increasingly vibrant faith.
This article was adapted from “The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity is Actually Thriving in America and the World.” It releases June 18, 2019; pre-orders available now.