With barely concealed enthusiasm, newscasters and pundits this March proclaimed the impending demise of “religion” in America.
“Ever since the Church’s obituary appeared in the paper this week, my phone has been ringing off the hook,” writes columnist Allen Hunt, who has also been a pastor.
The source of the excitement was ARIS, the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, released on March 9. According to ARIS, 15% of Americans now claim to have “no religion” at all, while the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians shrank to 76%, down a full 10 points from 1990.
For the most part the news media accepted ARIS uncritically and reported its findings as fact. But closer examination reveals a very different story.
A Hidden Agenda?
Chalcedon consulted Dr. Rodney Stark at Baylor University, co-author of What Americans Really Believe, a book summarizing an in-depth study by Baylor’s Institute of Studies of Religion—a study that reached a totally opposite conclusion to that of ARIS. Dr. Stark summed up the ARIS study in a word: “Baloney!”
“I know these people [the authors of ARIS] from long standing,” he said. “They have an agenda. They have their data, but what’s at issue is the way they interpret it—and I think they know better. The media know it’s a bunch of baloney, too, but they like it and they give it lots of coverage.”
Stark raked ARIS for not asking more detailed questions about religious beliefs and practices—a criticism borne out by a reading of the full text of the study.
“They don’t define ‘stated belief,’” he said. “Their definition of ‘irreligious’ is totally up for grabs. Most of those ‘irreligious’ people, for instance, pray. Meanwhile, there’s still only 3 or 4% of the population bouncing around as atheists—the same percentage since Gallup first asked about it in the 1940s.
“When you ask people, ‘Do you believe in a higher power or not?’ you get the same answer. The truth is that almost everybody believes in God.”
The ARIS Questions
We also talked to Barry Kosmin at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, co-author of ARIS and one of its two principal investigators. He criticized the Baylor survey.
“They come at the issue in a different way,” Kosmin said. “Our findings are in the mainstream. It’s Baylor that’s the odd man out.”
ARIS respondents, he said, were asked a simple question: “What is your religion, if any?”
“We reported that 15% of the people said ‘None,’” said Kosmin. “In essence, it’s a ‘belonging’ question—what religion does the respondent belong to? We also asked about behaviors.”
Specifically, ARIS asked about three religious “behaviors”:
- “Did you have a religious initiation ceremony, such as a baptism, Christening, circumcision, confirmation, bar mitzvah or naming ceremony?” (71% yes, 26% no)
- “Were you married in a religious ceremony?” (69% yes, 30% no)
- “When you die, do you expect to have a religious funeral service?” (66% yes, 27% no)
Conspicuous by their absence were the kind of basic questions asked by Baylor’s researchers, such as “Do you ever pray? If so, how often?” “Do you read the Bible?” “Do you believe people go to heaven when they die?” “Have you ever had a religious or mystical experience?” “Do you ever read books, watch TV shows or movies, or listen to radio programs about religion?” A respondent could certainly answer “no” to all three of ARIS’ questions and still answer “yes” to all of Baylor’s. Conceivably, one could answer “no” to all of ARIS’ questions and still be a devout Christian.
ARIS also asked, “Regarding the existence of God, do you think…?”
- “There is no such thing.” (2.3%)
- “There is no way to know.” (4.3%)
- “I’m not sure.” (5.7%)
- “There is a higher power but no personal God.” (12.6%)
- “There is definitely a personal God.” (69.5%)
- Refused to answer. (6.1%)
ARIS made no attempt to discover how firmly any of the respondents held to these stated opinions, nor for how long they had held them—aspects of the question that the Baylor Survey at least tried to explore.
We know from Baylor’s survey and from public membership reports that people are leaving the liberal “mainline Protestant” churches in droves. Some of these, said Kosmin, renounce their Christian faith and should be counted “no religion.” But most of them, said the Baylor survey, wind up joining more “conservative” Protestant denominations.
Both studies are available to the reader, Baylor’s in book form and ARIS on the internet. To us it seems that the Baylor study is much more thorough and believable.
Is Kosmin a Secular Humanist?
Kosmin denied that he and the ARIS team had any agenda to promote secularism. Asked if he himself is a secular humanist, Kosmin said, “Politically, yes. But my personal beliefs are not at either polarity of the theological spectrum.” Asked if he is a Christian, Kosmin said, “No.”
But he is the director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture; and he was the featured speaker on September 18, 2006, at the monthly meeting of the Humanist Association of Connecticut. His topic was “Understanding the Growth of Secularism.”
In 2005 he gave an interview to Free Inquiry, a secular humanist publication. In this interview he evaded the question, “Are you and your colleagues for it or against it [secularism]?” But a few comments he made might be deemed revealing.
Asked “Is secularism a dirty word?” Kosmin answered, “It’s not just an anathema to certain American television commentators with a polemical penchant but also to the Islamic Republic of Iran. With enemies like that …”
Asked, “Will secularism survive?” he answered, “Certainly—many humans are also ‘hardwired’ for rational thinking.” He also commented, “[T]here is ample evidence that material progress and technology do lead to what Weber called the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Trends in East Asia … should not be overlooked because of the current political focus on the Muslim world or Africa, which are politically and economically unsuccessful and consequently seem to be getting more religious” [emphasis added].
We leave it to the reader to judge whether a man who heads an institute for the study of secularism, is the featured speaker at a humanist society meeting, equates opposition to secularism with violent Muslim extremism, considers unbelief to be “rational thinking” (as opposed, presumably, to the “irrational thinking” of believers), and sees in religious faith the symptoms of a poor and backward nation is a secular humanist with a secular agenda or merely an objective scientist.
Regardless of whether ARIS is baloney, or rises to the level of tripe, it’s still important to ask whether Americans are truly slipping in their historic commitment to the Christian faith. Believing in some generic “god” is not the same as believing in the true God who reveals Himself in the Bible.
If Americans are sliding into syncretism, paganism, and New Age superstition, we must ask why. And we need look no further than the church itself to find the culprits.
Jesus Christ told Peter, “[L]ovest thou me? ... Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). In fact, He repeated the injunction three times, indicating precisely what role His church on earth was to play: to feed God’s people on the Word of God and solid Biblical doctrine.
Which brings us to the 9th annual National Pastors’ Convention, held in February this year in San Diego and sponsored by Zondervan and InterVarsity Press. Zondervan is one of the world’s largest publishers of Bibles and Christian books. More than 2,000 pastors and ministry workers attended the conference.
In his report on the conference, Peter Jones cites the event for various theological faults:
- “Undermining of Scripture … turning large swathes of the evangelical church into various new forms of old-fashioned though very cool liberalism.”
- “The Absence of Christ: Christ’s atoning death was passed over in silence”; summed up by speaker Brian McLaren, “Jesus teaches a way of life rather than a set of beliefs.”
- “The other half of the very center of the Gospel—Jesus’ physical resurrection—was also absent,” replaced by “this new liberal social gospel of the kingdom, which comes incrementally through our works of social justice.”
- The “De-Personalization of God” through the usual devices of “spiritual disciplines” and “gender-neutral language.”
Among the guests of honor scheduled for the conference was William Paul Young, author of The Shack. Successful in the literary marketplace as young readers’ fare (and also making much headway among adult readers), this excursion into blasphemy features God the Father as a black woman (of course), the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman, and Jesus Christ as a kind of squishy prat who gives everyone a free pass into heaven as long as their beliefs are sincere and they’ve got a lot of “love” in their hearts.
Is this the spiritual food with which Christ desires the church to feed His lambs? Is it possible for America’s Christians to maintain their Christianity when 2,000 of their pastors feed them on such pagan drivel?
Whatever criticisms we might make of ARIS, the Baylor surveys, and similar efforts by George Barna, the Pew Forum, and others, it is the church that is ultimately responsible for the health of Christianity in America. That is the church’s God-given function, and has been so since the days of Moses and Aaron.
Are the churches feeding the flock on good, sound, Bible-based theology? It seems we would have been hard put to find any such thing at the National Pastors’ Convention. But it would have been easy to find “salvation by works of the flesh” theology and a lot of feel-good pap.
The church is not a denomination, a building, a pastor, or a board of elders. It is the body of Christ on earth, the sum total of all true believers in Him. Corrupt churches rise and fall—in Israel and Judah, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and in our own world today—but the true church, under God’s protection, carries on. That divine protection will not be extended to churches that promote The Shack as a supplement to the Bible.
 Allen Hunt, “The Church’s Obituary,” Townhall.com, March 16, 2009, http://townhall.com/columnists/AllenHunt/2009/03/16/the_churchs_obituary.
 For a particularly loathsome example of this, see Frank Rich’s March 14, 2009, column in The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/15/opinion/15rich.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss.
 For a review, see Lee Duigon, “A Review of What Americans Really Believe,” The Chalcedon Foundation, February 18, 2009, http://www.chalcedon.edu/articles/article.php?ArticleID=2907.
 “The Subjects Are Seculars,” Free Inquiry, October/November 2005.
 Peter Jones, “Evangelicalism Highjacked by Closet Theological Liberals,” truthXchange, February 26, 2009, http://www.truthxchange.com/articles/55-evangelicalism-hijacked-by-closet-theological-liberals/.
Free Inquiry, “The Subjects Are Seculars,” October/November 2005.
 For a review, see Susan Eby, “A review of The Shack,” The Chalcedon Foundation, June 25, 2008, www.chalcedon.edu/articles/article.php?ArticleID=2865.