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By Tom Flynn
Executive Director, Council for Secular Humanism
Meerkat or ostrich, what’s your style? Consider the meerkat, standing vigilant astride its burrow. Then the ostrich – well, everyone knows what ostriches do. Two long-running studies of Americans’ religious alignment exemplify these styles. Which is doing the better job of capturing today’s religious landscape?
Standing with the meerkats we find Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College. Since 1990 they’ve helmed the American Religious Identification Study (ARIS). The third of their massive, methodologically consistent surveys was released this week.
ARIS 2008 finds Roman Catholicism in near-collapse across the Northeast. The church of Rome now draws its numbers largely from Hispanics across the South and West. Denominational Protestantism, too, is in decline. Mainline Protestant denominations claimed 17.2 percent of Americans in 2001, just 12.9 percent in 2008. Even Baptists declined as a portion of population. In their place have surged generic or nondenominational evangelical Christian groups (for example, megachurches): 5 percent of Americans in 1990, 11.8 percent today.
Meanwhile, America’s fastest-growing religion is … no religion at all. In 1990, 8.2 percent of ARIS respondents claimed no religion; in 2001, 14.2 percent; in 2008, 15 percent. This trend is confirmed in other studies. A 2004 Pew Center/University of Akron study using different methodology found 16.1 percentage claiming no religion. Meanwhile the share of Americans identifying as Christian declined from 86.2 percent in 1990 to just 76 percent today.
What do we know about religiously unaffiliated Americans? Not all reject supernaturalism entirely. Some “nones” are drifting between churches, spiritual but not religious, and so on. But the number of Americans who live without invisible means of support is clearly increasing. Kosmin and Keysar find a small number of respondents who claim the labels atheist or agnostic (about 1.6 percent). Even so, the number of outright atheists has almost doubled since 2001. But an impressive 12 percent of respondents qualify as atheists or agnostics based on their stated beliefs, though they do not embrace the labels. In 2004’s Pew/Akron study, roughly two thirds of its religiously unaffiliated respondents were atheists, agnostics, or “hard seculars.” The questing, spiritual-but-not-religious contingent composed only a third of this group.
ARIS 2008 also identified a further 12 percent who merit identification as deists, believers in a vague higher power but not a personal God. Here’s another stunner: more than a quarter of respondents do not expect a religious funeral when they die.
In all of this, ARIS 2008 reinforces the findings of studies by Pew, Harris, and other survey organizations. While remaining a force to be reckoned with, Christianity has lost its hegemonic monopoly over American life. The group rising fastest in its place is not only non-Christian, but to a great and growing extent not religious at all. At least, so it seems to the meerkats.
If that picture disturbs you, another long-running survey project may be more to your liking. Enter our ostriches: researchers at Baylor University, a Baptist institution, depict another America altogether. Open What Americans Really Believe, a book reporting on this group’s latest study by lead researcher Rodney Stark, and you’ll discover a nation where the percentage of atheists and agnostics has barely changed since World War II and the percentage of Americans confident in God’s existence holds steady at close to ninety percent. How can the Baylor study’s America be so deeply unlike that described by ARIS, and for that matter almost everybody else? Stark is a leading figure in the sociology of religion, though his best-known theory (that America’s free market in religious ideas drives its exceptional religious vitality) now commands more respect at cocktail parties than among professional sociologists. For its surveying legwork Baylor relied on the Gallup Organization. And the work was funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, that deep-pocketed friend of religion in public life.
According to a critical study released by my organization, the Council for Secular Humanism , Baylor workers sometimes employed questionable interpretive practices. Study author Gregory S. Paul suggests that by choosing carefully among Gallup polls, Baylor workers overcounted American atheists and agnostics in the 1940s and undercounted them in later years, creating the illusion that the level of unbelief has held almost steady for six decades. Meanwhile, many Americans who emerge in other studies as agnostic, unaffiliated, or nondenominational, or who hold non-traditional ideas about God, were counted by Baylor workers as traditional Christians. “The Baylor team treats almost any deviation from strict atheism as a sign of religiosity,” Paul reports. “Doing so falsely maximizes the apparent level of faith.”
What’s the future for American religion? Dynamic flux or reassuring stasis? Meerkat or ostrich? Apparently, you can choose your studies and take your pick. This secular humanist sides with the meerkats.
Tom Flynn is executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor of Free Inquiry magazine.