by Pew Research Fact Tank, 5/28/15.
Based on more than 35,000 interviews, the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study presented a detailed portrait of an America where changes in religious affiliation have affected all regions of the country and many demographic groups.
The survey’s findings raise questions about why these changes are occurring.
Fact Tank sat down with David Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, to explore what the new findings mean. Campbell is the author of a number of books on religion, including (along with Robert Putnam) “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”
For you, what stands out as the most important new finding or findings in the Religious Landscape Study?
The rise of the religiously unaffiliated has rightly drawn a lot of attention, but it is worth pausing to consider what that rise tells us. For one thing, the secular surge demonstrates the fluid and dynamic nature of America’s religious ecosystem. Most of the people who say that their religion is “nothing in particular” or “none” were raised in a household that was at least nominally religious. In other words, the “nones” were once “somethings.” But, equally important, most of the “nones” are what we might call soft secularists. Most do not describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, which suggests that they are not totally disaffected from all aspects of religion, or from a belief in a God or higher power. In other words, this suggests that many of the “nones” are not actively opposed or hostile to religion, and that some of them might even be attracted to a new form of religion.
The pattern of growing “none”-ism also reminds us that the U.S. version of secularism is different than what we have observed in Western Europe. There, secularism has grown steadily through a process of generational replacement — each generation is more secular than the last. Here, secularism has grown rapidly, which means it cannot be explained by generational turnover. But, as I noted, the growth has largely been in soft secularism. Given the highly innovative and entrepreneurial nature of American religion, it is probable that we will see a response by religious leaders to bring those soft secularists back. Whether they will succeed is an open question, but the U.S. has gone through other periods where secularism seemed to be on the rise, only to see religion respond and stem the tide of secularism. For example, religious influence in U.S. society was waning in the 1960s, but was on the rebound by the late 1970s.
Why have mainline Protestants continued to decline dramatically, while evangelical Protestants have shown only small declines?
Evangelicalism can hold on to its adherents because it is as much a subculture as a religion. While evangelicals are typically defined by more than the church they attend on Sunday, they are also bound by mutually reinforcing expressions of culture — the schools their children attend, the movies they watch, the websites they visit, the music they listen to. The deeper someone’s immersion into such a subculture, the more their religion is an integral part of their identity, and thus hard to leave. Furthermore, evangelicalism — both as a religion and a subculture — is highly innovative, entrepreneurial, and adaptable. Evangelical congregations are often engaged in “creative destruction” by regularly introducing such things as new forms of church organization and types of worship.
In contrast, mainline Protestantism is much less likely to be all-encompassing, largely because over most of American history, the national culture had a mainline Protestant accent. Thus, there was no need for mainline Protestants to develop the sort of subculture found among evangelicals. Similarly, while there are some notable exceptions, mainline congregations are generally steeped in more tradition than their evangelical counterparts, making it more difficult to innovate…