Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pew's In the News

The Pew Research Center is getting itself in the news again and the reaction, mostly misrepresenting what the polling results say, is that claiming that Christianity is in a nose dive, falling 8% in the last seven years and the mighty atheist advance has gone from `1.6% of the population to just over 3%.  I don't have any idea why there might have been those results but I'd guess it might have something to do with two major pushes in pop culture over the past couple of decades, the nearly uniform presentation that defines Christianity as right-wing, fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity, disappearing liberal Christianity in the popular culture and a more recent push defining atheism as liberal and cool. That atheism has managed to increase so little with the effort  that has been building for about as long as the media's campaign to define Christianity as fundamentalism is, I'd think, not the good news for disbelief that is being reported and claimed all over.

While I'm a long standing skeptic of opinion polling and am entirely unimpressed with the reporting of the Pew results by those who claim their higher sciencyness - I am left with the conclusion that they often can't even read the reported percentages objectively or competently - I can think of a lot of reasons why membership in an organized religious denomination might be down.  One, which I actually heard speculated about by representatives of the Pew Research Center on the Diane Rehm show yestereday was the general decline in membership in many organizations, including secular ones.   People spend more of their time being entertained to death than in thinking seriously or doing important things.  I would like to see membership figures in atheist organizations as the atheist fad of the past decade declines.   While atheists have marketed the pious belief in their own intellectual superiority and a permission for atheists to have enhanced self-regard (something the born-again religious outlets also sell) that kind of thing gets old after a while.  It is also guaranteed to turn off most people, including anyone with a more realistic practice of self-reflection and self-questioning.

I think the idea that the atheist fad will take over from Christianity is unlikely, considering the situation in formerly atheist countries which had a far more extensive and aggressive campaign to wipe out religion for decades.  I will just about guarantee you that there are a lot more Christians in the Christian sections of the former Soviet Union than there are atheists.  Certainly more than are atheists and true believers in communism.  I believe it's Noam Chomsky who not long ago said the Communists didn't even believe in communism by the Brezhnev era.

One thing in the Pew report I found interesting is what it had to say about Catholics.

The new survey indicates there are about 51 million Catholic adults in the U.S. today, roughly 3 million fewer than in 2007. But taking margins of error into account, the decline in the number of Catholic adults could be as modest as 1 million.11 And, unlike Protestants, who have been decreasing as a share of the U.S. public for several decades, the Catholic share of the population has been relatively stable over the long term, according to a variety of other surveys.

That is the result a dozen years after one of the worst public relation disasters any religious denomination has suffered in the pedophile scandal and the drastic decline in numbers of parish priests, both resulting in the closing of large numbers of Catholic churches, often making it far harder for Catholics to go to mass at distant churches and a loss of a sense of local community.   I'd, frankly, have expected a far more drastic decline than that.  If, as I think the hierarchy will be forced to, the priesthood is opened to married men and the closings of parishes stops or is reversed, I'd expect some or all of that decline to end.

The extent to which liberal Protestantism has taken a hit is, I think, the extent to which liberalism has declined with the increase in secularism.  The decline of liberal Protestantism has occurred in a period in which the values and reforms which grew out of those traditions, especially the liberal Reform tradition have declined in politics and in society.  Which is catastrophic for the rights and lives of poor people and for others who will never have the economic power or media influence to change attitudes.  If gay men had not been perceived as being more white and affluent (neither of which is actually true) than the presented stereotype of poor people, the recent gains in civil rights for us would not have happened.   They also, and even more certainly, would not have happened without the active support and votes of liberal Protestants, not to mention liberal Catholics*.  I think that decline is a real sign of trouble for liberalism in the future.  If "liberalism" comes to mean the government not interfering in peoples sex lives and a prohibition on discrimination instead of an active, forceful societal and governmental program including economic justice it is effectively dead.  And there is nothing in the anti-religious "liberal" agenda that will do that effectively.

*  I got into an argument with a couple of anti-Catholic radicals-in-their-own-minds and asked them to name a leader of a major government in Europe or North America who was as economically radical as Pope Francis.  I can't think of one and neither of them could.  I dare to say that, at least in their pronouncements, both of the two recent arch conservative Popes were to the left of Barack Obama in economic issues.  Certainly to the left of the Prime Ministers of Canada and Britain (even to the left of Tony Blair, when it was him) and certainly to the left of Angela Merkel.   I wonder in the recent and ignominious defeat of Ed Miliband might not indicate that atheist liberalism lacks the energy to succeed even under favorable conditions.  I doubt atheism contains the force to power liberal political success.


  1. This data strengthens my thesis that Protestantism is in decline because it mirrors the culture, rather than creating an alternative culture. The simplest example is worship: Protestant worship is either stuck in the 19th century (all the "old hymns," which, yes, I love, having grown up singing them) or is without form and void: a few hymns, some prayers, a guy talks to us/lectures us, we pass the hat, another hymn and we all go home. Communion, in some churches, is still only four times a year, and Easter is still about bonnets and Easter egg hunts after church, Christmas is all about getting home early for Santa.

    It's not a perfect thesis, because Southern Baptists are still stronger than ever, and Episcopalians aren't exactly growing or even holding their own. But at some level, too, churches thrive because of the people they attract, and they attract people because of their "genetics." It's a metaphor, not a causal relationship based in materialism, but denominations and congregations tend to draw like-minded people, and as new generations find themselves less like-minded than old ones, the split widens. Too, as churches find themselves more "democratic" in their judicatories, they find themselves more driven by particular groups (liberal as well as conservative) and who goes to church to fight about church?

    Catholics and Orthodox have an advantage there (and why do we never hear about the Orthodox churches? America is not home to all the Xians in the world, ya know....)

    There were some interesting stirrings in comments at Salon about the rise of the church in formerly atheist Russia. Lots of head scratching about how kids who hadn't been raised in church were returning to it. Maybe their weltanschaung based on education as the path of atheism and "reason" isn't all it's cracked up to be?

    Insert mordant chuckle here.

    I hadn't studied the numbers on this poll, or the methodology. I did know most of the breathless reaction to it was as reasonable as saying those pictures of girls with fairies from the 19th century were proof of the Little People. And it is funny, despite the best efforts and popularity of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and the Internet that has Enlightened us all! (when, I suspect, the number of people on the internet but not on Facebook telling people what they ate for breakfast is smaller than the number of people watching FoxNews, which is a small number itself. FoxNews wouldn't last ten minutes on broadcast TV), that atheism hasn't managed to even double its presence in America.

    And I know I had statistics somewhere to indicate Europeans were no more atheistic than Americans, and only slightly more likely to consider themselves non-affiliated with a religion.

    Fun with numbers, huh? Might as well be numerology....

  2. The Congregational Church in the next town over is sort of a center of activity and, as far as I can see, it is suffering no decline in numbers. It sponsors a food pantry, meals, Alcoholics Anonymous, etc. Other denominations in the area work with them and refer people to them constantly. In other words, they are putting Jesus back into Christianity, Moses too, as I've so belatedly come to realize.

    I am pretty suspicious about Pews motives, I think if they figured they could get as much press with stories about good news for Christianity and religion, in general, somehow their figures would track that way.

    One thing in the reaction I've found pretty startling is in the dismissing of the strong presence of religion in Black, Latino, Asian and other groups of Americans. It's as if that wasn't genuine, American, religious belief that was significant as compared to what the numbers can be made to do among white folks, especially white folks with money and a degree. Which gets back to my point about the damage secularism does to liberalism.

    I have been predicting a crisis in number for Catholics due to the decline in the number of priests for about thirty years, which hasn't come as I expected it to, though I don't see how a sacramental religion can maintain members who have no access to the sacraments as defined by Catholicism.

    I do mean it about Ed Miliband, I think atheism has no power to sustain liberalism which takes considerably more effort and self-sacrifice than conservatism does. I think it is why, as I've pointed out before, the most successful leftist in North American history was Tommy Douglas, a Baptist preacher.

  3. Your political points are particularly salient.

    And until you pointed it out, I didn't pay attention to Pew's motives. It does skew toward white people, doesn't it? Because their concerns are the most important, right?


    And we still ignore the fact Dr. King was a "Rev.," or that the Civil Rights movement was rooted, grounded, and centered in the Black church, or that Black liberation theology was a direct outgrowth of that movement. Of course, that's why we still pay no attention to liberation theology, and why Jeremiah Wright is still synonymous with "crazy" and "radical" and "dangerous," when nobody saying that has the first idea what Jeremiah Wright thinks or believes. And have you noticed the powerful uptick in interest in liberation theology with the pending canonization of Romero?

    Neither have I.

    I think churches that put Christ back into Christianity thrive. But, as I've said before, that't the Church of Meaning and Belonging, and most people just want to attend the Church of Belonging. The membership dues are a lot lower.

    I think you're right about Catholicism. Protestants have a similar problem, because we refuse to have any sacraments except communion, and even that is watered down to the point of meaningless. Why do we only have it four times a year, or even once a month? Because we aren't Catholic, is the only reason. I think there is an argument for worship, but that argument is a rebuttal of the idea that worship is my one hour of rest and comfort a week. The other counter is that worship is when we gather at the table and share the sacrament together.

    But, as I say, that's "too Catholic." That used to be the raison d'ĂȘtre of Protestantism. Now that it isn't, and now that we have basically "dissolved" into the community (the Protestant Work Ethic has gone from good to the greatest evil we face; and yes, I mean that), we have no reason to go on gathering.

    And that, really, is the problem. As a nation, we are more and more "bowling alone." Or going on the internet looking for community. As the Netflix show "Grace and Frankie" said in an episode I watched last night, the internet is not a place for conversation; it's just people shouting into the void.

    It was a line meant as a joke, but there's a truth in it. When I think of all the people commenting across the web and assuring themselves they are the Most Important People in the Universe, when in fact nobody is really listening.....

    1. I should add that Protestants have one other sacrament, baptism. But that one has been watered down even more than communion. In churches that practice infant baptism, it's just an excuse for a family gathering in front of the whole church (we don't do it privately, as the Catholics and Anglicans do). The sacramental portion of the rite is poorly understood and mostly completely ignored.

      There tends to be more reverence surrounding even passing a plate of crackers and trays of tiny cups of wine.