The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Davis Clipper.
We have all heard the story of the blind men who, touching different parts of an elephant, came to different conclusions of what the animal was really like. A similar series of explanations occurred last week when the respected Pew Research group released its statistics on American religious practices.
The basic numbers are not in dispute and most of us have already seen the trend. Rather than accept church membership rolls, Pew asked people if they had a religious affiliation, and the results were compared to the answers given seven years earlier.
Between 2007-2014, the number of Americans considering themselves Christian dropped nearly 8 percentage points (78-70 percent), with the fall coming in nearly every Christian faith. Protestants (which includes “mainline” faiths such as Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.) along with Baptist and other evangelical churches fell from 51-46 percent. Despite Hispanic immigration, Catholics fell from 24-21 percent. LDS membership also dipped slightly, from 1.7 percent of the population to 1.6 percent.
The only faiths to show any significant gains were spurred by immigration: Muslims doubled their percentage to nearly 1 percent of the U.S. population and Hindus nearly doubled as well.
And what was the largest gainer of any faith? The “unaffiliated” (atheists, agnostics, those simply not interested in religion and the segment that labels themselves “spiritual” but not religious). These “unaffiliated” now comprise nearly one in four American adults and is an even stronger presence among the young Millennial Generation (ages 19-34).
The statistics are great water cooler talk, but analysts quickly placed their own spin on the report. A church-owned radio station in Utah “teased” the story by proclaiming that “Christianity is still the majority religion in the U.S.,” while a somewhat secular newspaper headlined “Christianity is shrinking; LDS Numbers Near Flat.”
As in Irish stew, there was something for everyone. Evaluating the LDS numbers, for instance, some can agree with the Notre Dame University professor who said “While many Mormons are coming in the front door, many others are leaving through the back door.” But at the same time, the population grew between 2007 and 2014, so even if the LDS percentage dipped, the Church actually grew by some 40,000 people, hardly a catastrophic falling out.
Similarly, an evangelical columnists writing in USA Today said that “Christianity isn’t collapsing...rather, people who were Christian in name only are not categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction.” He wrote that a greater portion of evangelicals are attending church today than in any other time during the past 40 years.
The Pew statistics make for fun conversation, but they do spotlight a trend. Conservatives and Liberals would agree, although not on the cause, that America is less religious than in previous times. The sharp and steady growth in liquor sales hint that Utah is becoming less Mormon. (The state currently is about 55 percent LDS.)
The three houseguests I entertained this week – all Millennials – validated the Pew findings. Two were not very interested in any specific faith, while one attended a church but said she wasn’t that “rabid” about the teachings.
Religious leaders can draw their own conclusions, but the challenge is obvious: How will individual faiths fill up the pews with what one columnist called the sleep-in-on-Sunday crowd?