Mon | Oct 23, 2017

Christians declining, Muslims rising

Published:Sunday | May 17, 2015 | 12:00 AMIan Boyne, Contributor

A major 201-page US Religious Landmark study was released by the authoritative Pew Research Center last Tuesday showing that Christians have been declining sharply as a percentage of the American population, while the number of atheists, agnostics and other religiously unaffiliated persons has been growing markedly.

This study, titled America's Changing Religious Landscape, has received widespread publicity in the North American media and has been greeted with glee by secularists and the atheistic/agnostic community. The percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points since 2007, from 78.4% to 70.6%. Now, contrast that with a Gallup poll conducted in 1953, which found that only two per cent of Americans considered themselves unaffiliated, with 91% considering themselves Catholic or Protestant. Up to 30 years ago, only eight per cent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation. Today, 22.8% describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated so-called 'nones'. That category has grown by six points since 2007, while Christians are declining.

American Christian groups have also been losing members to Hindus and Muslims. In fact, in a study released by Pew last month (The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050), the leading research centre revealed that over the next four decades, Islam will be the fastest-growing religion, and the number of Muslims will be nearly equal to Christians globally - 2.8 billion Muslims, or 30 per cent of the world's population, compared to 2.9 billion Christians, or 31% of the population. This is the first time in history that there is near parity between these two religious rivals of the Abrahamic faiths.

Says that Pew study: "In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, and Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion. Muslims will be more numerous in the US than people who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion." This is most disconcerting to conservative Christians. But there is more bad news.

Says Pew in its latest study: "By a wide margin, religious 'nones' have experienced larger gains through religious switching than any other group. Nearly one in five US adults (18 per cent) was raised in a religious faith and now identify with no religion. Christianity and especially Catholicism - has been losing more adherents through religious switching than it has been gaining. More than 85% of American adults were raised Christian, but nearly a quarter of those who were raised Christian no longer identify with Christianity."

generational replacement

Analysing the factor behind the rapid growth in 'nones' - the religiously unaffiliated which includes atheists and agnostics - Pew says, "One of the most important factors ... is generational replacement. As the millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches than older generations. Fully 36 per cent of young millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34 per cent of older millennial (ages 25-33). And fewer than six in 10 millennials identify with any branch of Christianity."

But the study goes on to make this important point: "However, generational replacements are, by no means, the only reason that religious nones are growing and Christians are declining. In addition, people in older generations are increasingly disavowing association with organised religion. About a third of older millennials (adults currently in their late 20s and early 30s) now say they have no religion, up nine percentage points among this cohort since 2007 ... ."

There are now 56 million nones in the US - an increase of 19 million since 2007 alone. Stunningly, the number of religiously unaffiliated is now

higher than either Catholics or Protestants in America! "Indeed, the unaffiliated are now second in size only to Evangelical Protestants among major religious groups in the US." This is a crisis for Christianity. The April Pew study showed that over the next four decades, "Christians are expected to experience the largest net losses from switching. Globally, about 40 million people are projected to switch into Christianity while 106 million are projected to leave, with most joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated."

Meanwhile, the Muslims will be growing globally so Christianity is caught between the rising tide of secularism and Shari'a! (Where it won't even have the freedom to evangelise.)

Drilling down with the major decline in Christianity in America, the Pew study shows that mainline Protestants are the biggest losers (just as in Jamaica). They have lost five million members in just eight years, plunging to 36 million today. The Catholics have been big losers, too (just like in Jamaica). There are 52 million Catholics in America, three million fewer than in 2007. Evangelicals now number 62 million adult members, an increase of nearly two million since 2007. But the religiously unaffiliated has increased by 19 per cent since 2007, hitting the 56-million mark.

Not surprisingly, the percentage of college graduates who identify with Christianity has declined by nine percentage points since 2007. What is interesting, too, is that while Protestants and Catholics have not been retaining their adherents, the retention rate of non-believers is strong: Atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated are not switching to religion. "The retention rate of the unaffiliated has increased in the current survey. Fifty-three per cent of those raised as religiously unaffiliated still identify as nones in adulthood, up seven points since 2007. And among millennials, nones actually have one of the highest retention rates of all religious categories."

traditional stability

Another interesting fact that emerged from the America's Changing Religious Landscape study is that the size of the historically black Protestant tradition - such as Church of God in Christ, African Methodist Episcopal, and National Baptist Convention - has remained relatively stable in recent years at nearly 16 million. They and the Evangelicals have gained. This conforms very well with the long-established fact that conservative churches grow faster than mainline, liberal ones. People like certainty and don't like shades of grey, which liberal Christians specialise in. So those who want to remain religious want to be told what God says (they prefer a dogmatic faith). If they don't want that, they go agnostic or secular.

Professor of political science at the Mormon Brigham Young University, Richard Davis, says in Deseret News on Wednesday, "If the trends continue, it may spell trouble for organised religion. Clearly, organised religion will need to justify itself in a world where the concept of social religion is questioned." He adds: "While attempting to influence public policy, churches will not be able to assume a common ground of acceptance of religious positions or even the role of religion in public life."

What's working against Christianity? One is technology. The Internet has destabilised Christianity. There is too much available to ordinary people for them to maintain their 'old-time' religious faith. There is too much sceptical material online, too much material questioning, and, indeed, debunking some cherished Christian beliefs. People don't have to buy books to find disconcerting information on Christianity, which was formerly hidden there. By the click of a mouse, we can see all the alleged contradictions and discrepancies of the Bible.

Plus, just the matter of distraction that the digital age provides. You can amuse and entertain yourself and be in communication with friends anywhere, any time. You have little time for religious pursuits these days. It's the Age of Mass Distraction. Our attention span is short. Religion is not holding us anymore. The churches that are growing are the ones that are in sync with this materialistic, therapeutic, seeker-oriented culture. It's the health and wealth, prosperity Gospel that is carrying the swing. That's why the Evangelical wing of Christianity is not declining as rapidly. It is not countercultural; it is simply giving you a religious (and much easier) way to get money: health, good love relationships and successful careers. (Just sow your seed, pray in faith, etc.)

Demographics are working against Christians and in favour of the Muslims. Christian Europe is depopulating, while there is a population explosion in the Muslim areas, particularly in North Africa. Interestingly, atheists and agnostics - nones - while increasing in the US and France - will make up a declining share of the world population in the next four decades when Muslim populations will increase. Christians had better know they have to do more than prepare to fights gays.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working at the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.