Religion in the US: Surveying the Field

Two surveys out this week that cast some light on religious trends in the US: first the National Council of Churches Yearbook provides data reported by large denominations regarding changes in their membership and giving. Second, a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life provides some data on the rate at which people are moving from one denomination to another, and the retention rates and growth of various non-Christian denominations.

The big themes are to be expected: old mainline denominations like the Episcopal church continue to decline; Catholics are kept steady only by an influx of new members. Evangelical and charismatic churches, particularly smaller ones, continue to hold their own or grow.

Two interesting quotes:

“The American religious economy is like a marketplace — very dynamic, very competitive,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum.

While the large denominations are struggling to retain members, many smaller, more innovative churches are continuing to grow- thus keeping overall attendance quite high among Christians in the US, even if membership and particular denominations are taking a hit. This is a perfect example of how markets are supposed to work. Contrast this situation in Europe, where widespread state churches have tended to hold a monopoly on Christianity, creating large centralized systems that gobble up tax dollars and respond to changes in society slowly if at all. It’s a prime example of free market competition outperforming a centrally planned market. Bad news for folks who think one particular organization has a monopoly religious truth, but an interesting case study in what is, in the US, a near-totally unregulated market.

The self-identified Buddhists — 0.7 percent of those surveyed — illustrate a core challenge to estimating religious affiliation: What does affiliation mean?

It’s unclear whether people who called themselves Buddhists did so because they practice yoga or meditation, for instance, or claim affiliation with a Buddhist institution.

Emphasis mine.

First of all, are we really to expect that someone who is casually performing a Hindu form of worship mostly shorn of its religious significance in the US is going to self-identify as Buddhist? Odder things have happened, but this seems like something of a stretch. But the article does raise a valid point: American notions of religious belonging are ill-equipped to quantify non-exclusive traditions like Buddhism, or people who mix their spiritual practices (which are increasingly likely to be Buddhist, Hindu, or new-age in origin) with a familial identity as a Christian or Jew. It’s similar to the frustration that Western demographers face when trying to come up with religious adherence counts for East Asia- by forcing someone to check a single box, you’re essentially forcing a narrowing of their religious identity. The resulting numbers don’t end up meaning a hill of beans.

Interesting implications as well for the prospect of making lasting religious communities in the West- these results would seem to imply that small, autonomous communities are going to enjoy more success than large groups with national or international organizational structures.

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