So, the latest Pew survey on religion came out.
Douthat is pretty excited, in fact he wrote multiple articles about it.
In the first he takes three categories he fleshed out in his book Bad Religion--Biblical, Spiritual, and Secular, and looks how those groups fair in the survey. He argues there are a lot fewer “Biblical” folk around, instead they’re bleeding into the Spiritual center, even if they identify as “Biblical.” So, even people who are claiming orthodoxy are doing so while not connecting to orthodox traditions. Similarly, they are evangelical, but not members of an evangelical denomination. So, a self-identified “biblical” population may not change much for reporting purposes, but the denominations connected to them may decline.
In his second article he takes a slightly different route to say a similar thing. He points out that the Pew study is about identification, not practice. So, someone might go to church the same amount, but no longer identify as Christian. He then goes on to wonder if the whole thing just reflects the atypical maturation process of Millennials—that they’re not getting married so they’ve not boomeranged back to church in order to connect with a community to help them instill values and a sense of the transcendent in their children.
In some ways, both these articles point to the polarization and atomization of modern America. On one hand, people today are strongly encouraged to pick a side, either atheist or fundamentalist—middle ground is discouraged. On the other hand, it points out non-practicing affiliation is a value for many Americans.
One might wonder, if a war was called between the two factions, would anyone show up?
Kevin Vallier of Bleeding HeartLibertarians has a different take away from this poll. He points out to his Atheist friends, who are gloating at the demise of Christianity, that the kind of Christianity that is disappearing is the reasonable kind. Their shadow-self, the Fundamentalists, are going strong. He mourns the disappearance of the reasonable mainline-middle-man (he describes such a person as a father figure) who could bridge the gap between a fundamentalist mother and atheist son.
Then there is Clint.
He sees the Pew Report as a product of masochistic mainliners. We, he claims, have a deep seed of self-loathing within us, and therefore these reports (or at least how they are read) are shaped to cater to that impulse. The very categories different denominations are put in are categories only mainliners would use. In short, there is a much richer religious story in America than this report would show, so we should pull our heads out of our belly buttons and take a look around.
My own take is as it has been for a while; mainline decline has to do with the 3D’s, Demographics, Decentralization, and Disestablishment. Sometime this summer I'll be preaching on this subject, so wait with bated breath!