The New Pew Religion Survey Isn’t What You Think (Probably)


Lot of chatter over the new Pew survey of religiosity, “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow“.

Main result: Christianity down, “nones” up. Many take that as saying “religion is declining.” This is not only false, but ludicrously false. Religion is, if anything, increasing in frequency and in intensity. It’s only that Christianity is on the skids.

Catholics and mainline protesting Christians dropped over 3% each in seven years; and evangelicals are down about 1%. Catholics still make around 1/5 of the population, mainline protesters 1/7, and evangelical protesters 1/4. Historically non-Christian faiths, like Judaism, Islamism, Buddhisms, Hinduism and others are up about 1%, but in total are only 1/17 of us.

Loosely affiliated Christian-like religions, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism, remained fairly constant at around 1/35 the population. Orthodox Christian held steady at half a percent, and something under an unchanged 7% historically black Christian denominations.

Lump all the Christian or Christian-like sects together: in 2007 over 78% of the population, and in 2014 over 70%.

The real news are the yoga, hipster, progressive, environmental, agnostic, even atheistic “Nones” (or “unaffiliated”), which shot up about 7% and now represent about 1/4 of Americans. Atheists proper are up from just under 2% to around 3%.

Pew said, “More than 85% of American adults were raised Christian, but nearly a quarter of those who were raised Christian no longer identify with Christianity.” And “within Christianity the greatest net losses, by far, have been experienced by Catholics. Nearly one-third of American adults (31.7%) say they were raised Catholic. Among that group, fully 41% no longer identify with Catholicism.”

These people have slid over to the nones who “now constitute 19% of the adult population in the South (up from 13% in 2007), 22% of the population in the Midwest (up from 16%), 25% of the population in the Northeast (up from 16%) and 28% of the population in the West (up from 21%). In the West, the religiously unaffiliated are more numerous than Catholics (23%), evangelicals (22%) and every other religious group.”

To claim these nones are not religious is the mistake. Of course they are religious. They don’t say they are, but that is nothing. When pressed, they say they are “spiritual” or “caring” or “nice people.” But just you disagree with one of them over their dogma (equality, etc.) and you’ll quickly rediscover the meaning of “sacred.” Their religion is a mixture of old timey paganism, gnosticism, narcissism, nihilism, hanging-outism—and did I mention yogaism?

Mistake number two is to suppose that all those who volunteered they were Christians still believed Christian doctrine in its Biblical form; say, of the Nicene creed. Something that might be a good approximation to that is routine mass or service attendance. CARA tracks Catholic stats: In 1960 about 55% of self-proclaimed Catholics attended mass regularly, down to 24% in 2014.

Pew earlier said Christians (lumped together) who attended regular services was about 39%, while those who attended rarely or never was about 29%. The 39% is probably exaggerated, too: people lie to pollsters about going to service (see this or this)

A crude guess is about 1/3 in each of Catholic and mainline protesters and probably 5/6 or more of evangelicals are seriously serious. That means instead of the proclaimed 70.6%, we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% to 30% of Americans who now stick to the traditional creeds. When push comes to shove—and it will—this will decrease further.

“I don’t follow you, Briggs. Explain what you mean about traditional creeds.”

All right. Yesterday in the far-left Washington Post, they had an editorial by Barronelle Stutzman, the florist who turned down making a floral arrangement for two men who wanted to pretend to marry. She stuck to tradition even though it is ruining her material life (the State chased her down like she was a rabid dog).

A commentor (one of six thousand) rejoicing under the nom de plume “BecauseIAmWeak” said that Stutzman was unChristian and that she, Stutzman, was not only disappointing Jesus, but that Stutzman’s actions were Satanic. Sticking to the creed is now the work of the devil! BecauseIAmWeak would have told Pew she was “Christian.” (You’ll have to trust my quotation because the Post’s commenting software sucks wind.)

There were, among certain blogs, some needless gasping and panting about the Pew results. To counter this, the ever-sober Thomas McDonald reminded us of Pope Benedict’s words in “What Will The Church Look Like in 2000”:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision…

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystalization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek.

So Benedict was off by a couple of decades. Nobody bats 1000.


  1. I would object to your characterization of the Jehovah Witnesses’s not being a Christian religion. They are, as much as Catholic, Baptist, etc. Also, they may remain steady in their numbers because they are unlikely to fall victim to what Pope Benedict predicted for the Catholic church. They are non-political and really don’t care how many members they have, only that beliefs are seriously adhered to.

    I certainly agree with the sticking to the creed problem. Of course it’s labelled as evil and bad–how else do you intimidate people into behaving the way you want them to if you don’t say that? If you don’t, people might actually admire the woman. Can’t have that, can we?

  2. Gary

    Briggs, I’m curious about your labeling. Is “protesters” equivalent to “skeptics”?

  3. Briggs

    Well, it’s the modern translation of “protestant”, no?

  4. Ray

    As Chesterton purportedly said, “He who does not believe in God will believe in anything.”

  5. Briggs

    Gary, Sheri, Others,

    Now I think of it, it may not be obvious that my gentle teasing is meant to highlight the closeness of believing Christians and not the apartness, a distinction which will be growing in importance.

  6. There went my hope that the Catholic Church could actually hold out against false prophets and bad behaviour….Guess eventually if you put all of your faith in humans and care more about politics than God, this is what happens. Most protestants have already sold out. This does not bode well for religion, though I do know it’s not the first or last time churches fail in their mission. Sigh.

    (There is a sameness in Christians, Briggs, but that seems to actually be working against them at the moment. They fall one by one and the fall of one makes the fall of others so much easier. )

  7. Francsois

    I read your blog pretty much every day, and I mostly agree with what you write (the bits that I can understand anyway). You strike me as a smart person, but I am puzzled by one thing. Are you really religious, and are you really a catholic? Do you really believe “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages …” etc.? Why?
    I guess what I am saying is how can an intelligent person such as yourself believe that Jesus was really the son of God, and believe the stories in the bible, water into wine and so forth. Why do you believe these things? Why are you a Christian?



  8. Well, my hope would be as the Christian population shrinks and the fat is trimmed away, we actually get a more RADICALIZED faith. I wouldn’t want it to go down the fundamentalist route, but more hard-core orthodoxy (small o). Expect it to divide along racial lines too by the way.

    The Reactionary project has to realize that at some point, it will need boots on the ground, actual force numbers.

    Those who remain in the Faith despite the persecution it will bring upon them, are just the kind needed. Strong in conviction, and pissed off as hell.

  9. Briggs


    Exactly so.


    Thanks for being a loyal reader! I blush at your compliment, and, oh my, yes. I really am a Catholic, and I really do believe every word of the Nicene creed, that water turned to wine, and all of that. Of course I believe it!

    Why I am a Christian. Excellent question. The best brief answer is had by starting at the beginning of the “Summary Against Modern Thought” thread (at the bottom of the site, under Categories).

    But I’d be happy to answer more questions.


    Yep. I have more information, too. Stay tuned.

  10. BB

    Not sure these findings of a decline are so much of a surprise. We have two major effects, I think:

    1) The people who didn’t believe in Christianity but instead some vague do-it-yourself spiritualism but still occasionally went to church and ticked one particular box on these surveys have become people who don’t believe in Christianity but instead some vague do-it-yourself spiritualism and don’t occasionally go to church and tick a different box on these surveys.

    2) The people who started going to church as young adults because at the time it was the socially acceptable thing to do are starting to die off, and those sort of people are not being replaced because going to church is no longer the socially acceptable thing to do so subsequent generations of that mindset don’t follow them. (Not least because those of this mindset have mutilated their churches to try to make them stay socially acceptable, thus making them lose any purpose, point or divine support they might have had.)

    Which leaves the important questions still unanswered:

    1) How many people are there who go to church (of whatever denomination) and who do believe in Christian doctrine, and is that number increasing or decreasing?

    2) And are the churches doing enough to equip their congregations (and pastors) to be able to stand against the onslaught they receive from outside the church (and to know why that onslaught is wrong in enough detail that they can effectively argue against it to their comrades without looking to the modern world like a complete idiot), and in particular to teach their children that what they learn in the state schools is not the only nor the best way of looking at the world?

  11. M E

    In New Zealand I believe I am right in saying that national surveys, like in the Census, tell us we do not have to indicate our religious beliefs if we don’t want to, but to leave the box blank. So how could you tell how many people just left the box blank.? How many think the state is a nosey parker for asking?
    How many know the difference between atheist and agnostic and couldn’t be bothered with all that stuff? So how do you quantify them?

  12. Doug

    Polls present a worldly, not spiritual, view of Christianity. The powers of our creator and redeemer are seen in individual lives – the saints, for example. I’m sure we all can think of some in our own lives. The power of “the church” is not related to numbers, but to the actions and beliefs of those who are close to God and who follow the teaching of Christ.

    A person can be “religious” about just about anything, so to me the word has no use in relation to who is and is not in the church.

  13. Gary

    Fewer Americans are joiners than they used to be — both officially and unofficially — which probably is what the polls are seeing. Part of it is the commitment thing, part is that competition for time and participation has become great. Kids have soccer games on Sunday mornings, the social media steal time. Throw in laziness, weariness, and generally being less informed and curious, not to mention addiction to something distracting. The result is reduced identification with established religious categories.

  14. swordfishtrombone

    Sheri: (Jehovah’s Witnesses) “really don’t care how many members they have”

    Why then do they keep knocking on my door and trying to convert me? I almost feel sorry for them when they do as I’m not only an argumentative atheist but also worked for the Blood Transfusion Service. I said “almost” – I don’t actually feel sorry for them as they’re often unpleasant and even aggressive when challenged. I do feel sorry for their children who sometimes get dragged around with them.

  15. Some Jehovah Witnesses are apparently still quite aggressive. Those where I live were very polite and were simply interested in spreading the word of God. That was their goal—to let everyone know about Jehovah. As for people becoming members of the church, that was a plus if it occurred.

    What I meant was they are not going to change their doctrine just to get members, so far as I can see. They have rules and they stick to them.

    The JW’s here take “no” for an answer and generally don’t come back at least for a lengthy period of time. I was told that the church had instructed its people to cut back on the aggressiveness. Seems not all got the message. Also, I did not challenge them, but just listened. I wanted to learn who they were and what they believed. Maybe that helps.

  16. I likt the Jw’s. One of them is pretty sharp and fun to talk to.
    They come once a year, relatively frequent visitors.

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