Wither Atheists

The new polling news from Gallup shows an even more pronounced trend away from religion and churchgoing. It isn’t surprising, as polling data for the past 20 years have demonstrated this trend, but the data shows the trend line passing over the notable milestone of 50%; now fewer than half of Americans go to church.

Pundits might have you believe that this is due to the malicious influence of Satanists and Atheists (or Communists, or devil-lap-dancing pop singers, or whomever is the villain du jour). If this were true, we’d be seeing Atheist affiliation skyrocket, and yet the number of atheists has barely budged. These formally church-going people don’t seem to become atheists, they instead get lumped in with the religious “nones,” that is, people who don’t claim any sort of affiliation.

Based on how defamed and vilified atheists are, this isn’t that surprising. Atheists are just unpopular, and they always have been. But it seems somewhat inescapable to me that if you begin to devalue or reject religion that you then must turn to some other worldview, which by definition becomes atheism or agnosticism. That people, in large numbers, aren’t making this logical jump indicates to me that they’re living in an even more relativistic metaphysical space than we’ve previously imagined. Lots and lots of people, in growing numbers, now refuse to say there is no God, and yet also refuse to support the existence of God in the guise of a religion. It is a liminal space between theism and atheism, a grey area. And we love grey areas! But it is hard to live in one regarding your fundamental belief about the nature of the universe.

One other note: this research says that 4% of religiously unaffiliated still attend church regularly. These people are the very definition of Catholic Atheists! Hey everyone!

Polls and Pews: complexity in self-identity

The ongoing polling research done by Pew on religion in America has been a major touchstone in understanding national trends, but new research by Pew further affirms how difficult it is to get a sense of what religion means in this country, and how impossible it is to capture a picture of that.

Photo by Emmanuel Appiah

By changing the method of polling from one primarily based in phone interviews to a system where a panel of pre-selected people fill out online surveys, the pollsters are realizing that people are more likely to represent themselves as “religious” and “church-going” to a person on the phone than they are when privately answering on their own. It is objectively funny that people would lie about being a part of a religion which condemns lying, but Pew points out that it isn’t necessary a lie. Someone who says they are “moderately religious” one day might, because of circumstances or how the question was asked, say the next that they are “only slightly religious.”

Of course, actual church attendance is a more empirical metric, and we should be able to hypothetically track actual attendance versus self-reported attendance. This gets a little sticky too, though, as the research notes:

“[…] when respondents in a telephone or face-to-face survey overstate how often they go to religious services, they may not be consciously telling a lie so much as projecting a self-image that is important to them. They may be saying, in effect, “I’m the kind of person who goes to church every week” rather than, “Without fail, I actually go to church every single week.” When answering the same question online, without the subtle psychological impact of speaking to another person, respondents evidently give answers that are closer to their actual behavior.”

Pew Research Center

Which is to say, people’s identity doesn’t necessarily align with their actions. Is someone who self-identifies as church-going but never actually goes to church actually a church-goer? A simple quantitative question becomes a complicated metaphysical puzzle. If anything, the enterprise of the 21st century has demonstrated in sharp relief the many complexities of identity.

The problem isn’t necessarily that someone would misrepresent themselves to a pollster because they prefer to give an answer that is socially desirable. The problem is that the person doesn’t recognize this answer is at odds with their behavior, and that matters of self-identity are unassailable. Instead of simply writing off a non-church-attending person who identifies as church-going by saying they are lying, we must accept that some actually identify as church-going, maybe even if they don’t actually attend church at all. The fact that they don’t enter into the building doesn’t change their self-image as a “church-goer,” and presenting them with the facts shouldn’t change it either; they simply see themselves as “church-going,” even if they don’t satisfy the generally accepted reality of that term.

There is a way in which this is simply a semantic argument and not a metaphysical one. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that a person’s self-identity has a material change on the reality around them, but I also don’t want to reduce identity down to a matter of definition of the terms. There is a real sense in which the person who never sets foot inside a church but thinks of themselves as a devoted church-goer is what they see themselves as, because, after all, who is anyone else to tell them what they are? As with all questions of identity, the conclusion is ultimately a self-identification, which means others cannot dispute the conclusion.

This also doesn’t just boil down to solipsism. Self-identity doesn’t change the fact of how often someone’s physical body enters into a worship space. But it does change how we view research, as well as how we view others: when people tell you who they are, believe them.

QAnon epistemology and Christian Nationalist hermeneutics; lies the faithful believe

The American political landscape has been dominated in the last half decade by an increasing confusion about the nature of “Truth.” This wasn’t always a problem for the media; for generations we simply believed whatever Walter Cronkite told us. Even when we began to embrace a need for a variety of reporting outlets and styles, we always assumed that the very nature of the fourth estate would be self-policing. Misinformation would be rooted out by other reporting, and outlets with a track record of untrustworthiness would lose readers.

“Fake News” was originally a verifiably false report which was pushed by the power of the people: misinformation could be elevated in the public consciousness simply by it being spread. This was a danger in the unregulated mediums of social media which lead to our current apprehension about all news. If any news can be fake, why can’t all news? And if all news is fake, why not believe an outlandish theory that captures my imagination and my heart?

So we see the rise of QAnon, the meta-conspiracy du jour. These QAnon people are generally republican voters almost by definition, which means there is a lot of crossover with evangelical groups. Christian Nationalism is closely linked to QAnon belief. In fact, a majority of republicans believe in at least some of the QAnon lies, and about half of ALL Americans in a survey were unable to correctly identify one of QAnon’s most outlandish theory that Satan-worshiping child-sex-traffickers run the government. How could we possibly have come to this?

Although it is difficult to disentangle correlation and causation, it is not coincidence that those who are historically devoutly religious in a traditional way seem to be most swayed by QAnon nonsense. There is, of course, the way in which the whole movement wraps itself up in the trappings of religion; perhaps you remember the “shaman” in fur and horns proclaiming victory on the dais in the Capitol?

More importantly, people who have been conditioned to believe without evidence, and who hold belief without evidence as a virtue, are naturally going to gravitate towards wildly inaccurate conspiracy theory. They’ve literally been told since birth that those who “believe without seeing” are blessed, that faith is a virtue in-and-of-itself, that the greatest truths in the world are untestable and unverifiable. This hermeneutic of belief is fundamental to their culture, their worldview, their identity; of course it was going to be co-opted at some point.

There are lots of conclusions to draw from this, as well as solutions. For now, though, it might be enough to say simply, “we brought this on ourselves.” Our country’s backwards adherence to supernatural belief created an epistemology which prizes falsehood. We literally have centered our biggest national holiday around a fantastical lie about an old man breaking and entering our homes, leaving our children to traumatically discover later in life that not only their parents and friends have lied to them since birth but also an entire national cabal of coconspirators all complicit in the same fabrication. Growing up in this framework, who wouldn’t later in life assume that the entire political establishment was lying to them?

Does your kid really care about church?

Whenever Pew releases another study on religious habits there’s always plenty of juicy details that don’t necessarily come out in the headlines. This month’s study has a few funny conclusions, and a few eyebrow-raisers, too.

It probably isn’t a surprise that both teens and parents think the other cares more about religion than they do. On both sides, the parents and children overestimated how important religion is to the other. That doesn’t seem too surprising; parents probably assume their kids’ faith is important aspirationally, while children probably perceive a greater importance because parents are making it a point to pass that faith along. When there are differences between teens and parents, it tends to be the teens who are less religious; again, not a surprise in a world where younger people tend to be overwhelmingly less religious than their elders.

It’s also not surprising that children overwhelmingly share their parents’ religion. Other research demonstrates that, when people leave the church, they tend to do so from 18-35. Of course, living under the influence of a parent and having little autonomy, a teen’s sense of faith is going to be almost completely guided by their parent’s.

Then there’s this little quirk:

Within the broad Protestant category, however, there are stark differences. Eight-in-ten parents who affiliate with an evangelical Protestant denomination have a teen who also identifies as an evangelical Protestant. But among parents who belong to mainline Protestant denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 55% have a teen who identifies in the same way – and 24% have a teen who is unaffiliated.

Why is it that evangelicals teens are more likely to identify with their parents’ religion? Is there something about the fire-and-brimstone consequences that makes them more likely to stay involved? Or is there something less engaging about “mainline” denominations?

Also notable is the trend among teens towards a relativistic or pluralistic view of religion. Excepting the evangelicals, a slight majority of religious teens believe that “many religions may be true,” a marked change from the historical concept of religion. It seems to indicate a future in which religious conflict is tempered by an understanding that truth may take many forms, or perhaps indicates an abandonment of objective truth that might make it difficult for any two people to agree on something.

What happened to online church?

Are you still going to church? Virtually, I mean. Some places are holding physically distant, reduced capacity meetings, of course. Some have experimented with outdoor services, although winter is coming quickly. But the majority of churches are still holding online, virtual services. The people, though, are giving up.

The research from the Barna Group in June gave a pretty shocking picture of the state of faith in America. About half of people were still “attending” virtual church, less than a third were engaging with church leadership, less than 15% were participating in a discussion group or bible study. It isn’t a surprise that people wouldn’t immediately embrace this unusual method of churchgoing, but the shocking part about these statistics is that they are amongst regular churchgoers! That means, even within the church’s most devoted followers, membership is waning in an unprecedented way.

Personally, I was pretty committed to regular Sunday viewing in the spring and early summer. I was definitely one of the “hoppers” that the research mentions, switching freely between several services at congregations which I wouldn’t normally attend. The incredible ease of access to a variety of churches made “attending” different services fun and novel. I would switch between several live, or watch portions of other churches’ later in the day.

That has slowly dwindled, and now I find myself zipping past Sunday without even thinking about booting up a live stream. The incredible variety of online services available was also its undoing: although I enjoyed getting to experience each church’s take on virtual service early on, after several weeks I wasn’t engaged enough to continue. There is only so much novelty a virtual service can offer, after all, and by simply passively watching I wasn’t really engaging with any one church.

I wonder how much the numbers have fallen off since June. One can only assume that my personal experience mirrors a trend. One also has to wonder how this will change churchgoing in the future; it seems equally as likely that churchgoers who have fallen off in virtual attendance will happily return in person as it does that they simply become lapsed practitioners.

One thing is certain: in order to maintain worshipers, churches have to find a way to increase real engagement. Not just getting people to passively watch their productions, but engage in community in a significant way, as they would by attending. Many congregations are constantly innovating new ways to address this. The social and communal aspects of church are lost in a virtual ceremony, and these are the primary factors in retention in a normal church setting. If churches are going to continue to be restricted in their ability to hold in-person services, they will need to find a better way to simulate this communal engagement if they hope to retain parishioners in the short-term.