Evolving religious profile is a revelation


By LANCE DICKIE

For a survey full of revelations and epiphanies, the answer from demographer Ariela Keysar was not what I expected.

She was most surprised by the tsunami of international attention that greeted the new American Religious Identification Survey.

Keysar said the 2008 survey found the United States to be far less religious than its own self image or perceptions abroad. The findings were news around the globe.

Keysar and Barry A. Kosmin are the principal investigators for the survey conducted by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. In 1990, 2001 and 2008 the essence of the survey has been a basic question, “What is your religion, if any?”

Only one response grew in every state: None. Fifteen percent of Americans, a huge number, claim no religion. In 2001, the Pacific Northwest led the nation with the highest percentage of “nones.” New England passed us in 2008.

Thirty-four percent of Vermonters claim no religion. Slow down, do not go all Ben & Jerry socialism on me. Next door, in plain vanilla New Hampshire, the figure is 29 percent, and stolid Maine is 25 percent. Washington is around 22 percent.

Membership in the Catholic Church dropped nationwide, but it slipped off the pew in New England. Patricia O’Connell Killen, a professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University, suspects the church’s handling of its clergy sex scandals, especially in New York, contributed to an erosion of identification, if not faith.

Over three surveys, more than 220,000 Americans over the age 18 have been interviewed. Keysar said sheer numbers allowed the researchers to do very refined comparisons. Numbers so big got to very small numbers in more than 100 self-identified groups.

Graying imaginations

Old mainline churches of American Protestantism are statistical figments of their graying imaginations. The Episcopal Church represents 1.1 percent of the population. Internal feuds drove away a million parishioners — about a third — from 2001 to 2008.

Americans who identify themselves as Christians are not associating with denominations, Keysar said. The number of “Christians, unspecified” grew from 8 million in 1990 to 16 million in 2008, but the attitudinal shift is even bigger.

The survey revealed the way of being Christian in America is changing, Killen said. People are more inclined to find a congregation that works for them than to be loyal to a denominational identity.

The non-Catholic expression of that Christianity in the survey was the explosion of “Non-Denominational Christian” as a personal identity. In 1990, the survey recorded that response 190,000 times. In 2008, more than 8 million people offered that description of themselves.

America is also slowly becoming a less Christian nation, but the change, the study notes, has not come from growth in other world religions or new religious movements. The drop is from a rejection of all organized religions.

In separate conservations with Keysar and Killen, scholars on opposite sides of the country, each volunteered their amazement at the same statistic. Twenty-seven percent of Americans expect no religious rites when they die. No second thoughts, no hedging their bets. Indeed, the idea of a personal God is losing ground to a vague, deist force.

Oh, and young evangelicals are not inclined to follow old evangelicals. Mars Hill Church, Seattle’s youthful megachurch, hosted an eclectic panel debating Satan for an ABC “Nightline” episode that aired Thursday. American religion adapts.

X Lance Dickie is a columnist for the Seattle Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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