Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Thoughts on Pew's Findings on Christian Decline in the US

The new Pew poll results showing Christianity suffered a big decline in the US is not surprising. NYT carried this article, which received over 750 comments at the time of this writing (the article was published today):


I like to scroll the comments section to understand the zeitgeist. Nearly all the comments were from people in the 25% or so of the population that Pew determines are the "nones"- those who identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, undecided or not affiliated with any of the categories of religion or irreligion.

I wanted to make a word cloud of the descriptors of the major themes in these comments, but stuck to an old fashioned table containing 4 themes. A summary of the descriptors are below:

Improvement Irrational Indoctrinated Myth-maker
Grown-up Blind Stupid Authority' (in negative context)
Good news Training for the simple in moral values Narrow-minded
Years of education is paying off Morality is separate Bigoted
A natural outcome of thinking societies Sterile Stupid
People are free to me more moral, compassionate, helping the poor Incalculable evil Judgmental
Politicians should pay attention (to cater to this demographic) Explanation of the unknown Repulican party has manipulated Christianity
Does not explain bad things Conservatism of evangelicals a threat
Institutional faith demands faith If only evangelicals could be down to zero
Racism Evangelicals only a slight decline (in negative context)
Misogyny Maybe it comforts some, but all untrue
Denying reproductive rights
Denying gay rights
No need to tolerate them
Among the worst scourges of the world
No religious people = No religious wars
Keep your religion private, leave others in peace

There were only 3 or 4 comments from those who admitted to being religious or Christian, and these were in the nature of seeing a silver lining in these results (as I too tend to see them)- that, cultural Christianity is declining and a more honest Christianity is hopefully replacing it. I also hope that a less politicized (not apolitical) Christianity would take its place- a Christianity which plays in the public sphere, whether political or not, but not interested in seeking power, rather seeing all human institutions as natural ecosystems to live out and proclaim the Gospel in a winsome manner.

I'm also glad that Evangelicalism has been shown to be in decline- it has long been a contention that Evangelicals do not need to worry as much, it is only the mainline Protestants and Catholics who are facing the decline. Clearly, this should give Evangelicals pause for thinking. The descriptors above show what atheists and other 'nones' think of us. I'm also glad that these comments are seeing the light of day- most people who read them and have even a little wisdom will understand how intolerant and patronizing these comments are, disregarding completely the many scientists, compassionate humanitarians, social/political workers around the world who have positively changed the world through their faith and inspired actions. One commentator, whose displayed name had the suffix PhD, made the comment that one should not tolerate the backwards-thinking, stupid, idiotic and brain-washed people who believe in God.

One commentator, tellingly, remarked that he hoped this would be the end of politicians saying 'God bless America'. A friend of mine recently mentioned he hoped we would say instead 'America, bless God' and that our problems are rooted in the fact that we have not found our rejoicing in God. I agree with this sentiment- I also believe that we (Christians) are to blame for this. Telling all Americans to bless God would be silly- clearly not all of them believe in God in the first place. Those who need to bless God are those who believe, specifically those who have known his saving grace.

I'm convinced that it is not our lack of knowledge that contributed to this decline, but rather our loss of Jesus' central command to love our neighbor, especially here in the US. My Christian friends in Nepal and India are risking life and limb at this very moment to rescue those trapped under buildings, nursing the injured and the sick and providing food, shelter, water and healthcare to those affected by the earthquake. Despite a lot of bluster from Richard Dawkins following the Haiti earthquake, I have not seen any specifically non-religious effort outside of governmental initiatives to help such people.

If Christianity is in decline in the US- or for that matter, anywhere- it is because we have become, as Ron Sider put it, 'rich Christians in an age of hunger'- in other words, not Christian at all, at least in terms of our patterns of living. A Christian commentator saw a silver lining in that he thought this may mark the bottom of the decline and the time may be now ripe for a revival. I doubt this. Looking around I still see the politicking, the narrow confines of our vision in regards to those who need God's grace and our grace the most- the LGTBQs, those who have had abortions, undocumented aliens for whom our healthcare pay or provider systems have precious little to offer, the incarcerated, the poor, the colored, and all others to whom we have denied our grace.

I also share no enthusiasm for the idea that the 'new generation' will embrace these values. If anything, the young are more likely to be nihilists and far more selfish than their parents were or are. But I believe in the supernatural acts of grace that God brings about to alter the hard hearts of Americans (I use the word intentionally). This is surprising and unpredictable. On that I hitch my hope- and on nothing else. In other words, God help us!


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