Sunday, December 16, 2012

Religious Affiliation

Religious affiliation of large masses of people is damnably difficult to establish with what might be called scientific precision. The reason for this is that the most cost effective method is by telephone survey. A really good census would be prohibitively costly. One way to do that would be to select four Sundays a year, one in each season, by randomized methods. Then, with observers stationed at every church in America, actual headcounts would be undertaken. The usual survey method is quite missy, one might say, because those conducting the surveys rely on the self-identification of the respondents. Thus, in addition to some 41 named religious or non-religious categories, the results include choices like “Christian,” not further specified,  “Protestant,” no denomination listed, and also “Nondenominational.” People could also vote for “No Religion” either by subcategory or by that label. The subcategories respondents supplied were Atheist, Agnostic, and Humanist. Here I am showing results obtained by the most respected survey of this kind in the United States, the American Religious Identity Survey (ARIS); it is run by the Graduate School of the University of New York.

I got to thinking about this while reading an article by evangelical pastor John S. Dickerson (“The Decline of Evangelical America”) in the New York Times this morning.  I got to wondering if ARIS had updated its earlier results, which had been for 2001. It turned out that it had. Data for 2008 are now available and were published in the 2012 Statistical Abstract (link, see Table 75). It now turns out that Pastor Dickerson may be wrong—or that he is reflecting a decline in quality rather than quantity. Those who self-describe themselves as Evangelical and/or Born Again more than doubled between 1990 and 2001 and nearly tripled in number between 1990 an d 2008.

Now when we next look at those who just say that they are Christian, they doubled in the 1990-2008 period (108.5% increase). Those who identified themselves as Protestants, however, declined by 70 percent. But those who called themselves Nondenominational increased by a whopping 4,040 percent. What to make of this? Are we dealing here with a drift in self-identification? So that once church-going people have been re-purposing Sunday and hence are kinda forgetting where they belong? Or does that huge Nondenominational increase mean drawing closer to religion?

The most potent increase in numbers is shown by Catholics (up in this period by 11.2 million, 24.33% in 1990-2008) and Baptists (up by 2.2 million, 6.4%). As for the single largest percentage increase, 4,175 percent, that belongs to Wicca. In 1990 there were 8,000 of them, in 2008 342,000. They know the name of their denomination. In this period, all Christian denominations increased their adherents by 14.7 percent (to 173.4 million), other religions by 50.28 percent (to 8.8 million), and the nonreligious by 138.4 percent (34.2 million). I last wrote about this subject in February 2010 (link). Back then I noted a drift toward unbelief. That still seems to be going on.

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