Posts tagged ‘Statistics’

Faith on Trial

A few weeks ago, Ross Douthat of The New York Times argued that those who are portending the collapse of American Christianity are vastly overstating their case:

Lukewarm Christianity may be declining much more dramatically than intense religiosity … Recent Gallup numbers indicate that reported weekly and almost-weekly church attendance has only “edged down” lately, falling to 38 percent in 2017 from 42 percent in 2008 … And long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s – and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom.

Mr. Douthat argues that though there is a definite statistical decline in those who have marginal faith, those who have committed faith remain strong and steady in their faith.  The Christian faith, when it actually shapes one’s life, is incredibly durable.

But now, this past week, Timothy Beal makes the contrary case in The Wall Street Journal when he asks: “Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans?” Mr. Beal opens:

The fastest-growing population on the American religious landscape today is “Nones” – people who don’t identify with any religion. Recent data from the American Family Survey indicates that their numbers increased from 16% in 2007 to 35% in 2018. Over the same period, there has been a dramatic decline in the share of the population who identify as Christian, from 78% of Americans in 2007 to 65% in 2018-19, according to a report by the Pew Research Center released this month. The rise of Nones is even more dramatic among younger people: 44% of Americans aged 18 to 29 are Nones.

Mr. Beal argues that the decline in the numbers of Christian faithful is acute. Nevertheless, he does suggest that this trend may be reversible. His prescription for revitalizing faith, however, is interesting, to say the least:

Questioning religious teachings and positions has always been an essential part of religion. No faith is fixed or changeless. On the contrary, reinterpreting inherited scriptures and traditions in light of new horizons of meaning is critical to the life of any religion. Think of Jesus or the Buddha; think of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, or Dorothy Day, who helped to create the Catholic Worker Movement. Religion’s ongoing vitality depends on those who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions. Without such engagement, any religious tradition will die from the inside long before it begins to lose adherents.

Mr. Beal argues that in order to revitalize the Christian tradition, we must begin by questioning it. And he is is partially correct. There have indeed been those “who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions,” sometimes with great success and to the great benefit and betterment of humanity. But it is also important to note that, according to an orthodox Christian worldview, “inherited teachings and positions” are not so much questioned in order to change the Christian faith as they are in order to rediscover it.  The message of Christ, properly understood, does need to change, for it is the revelation of a perfect God who does not need to change. Instead, the message of Christ is meant to change us. This is why people who once held slaves in 18th and 19th century America were called to let these people go, even as God once called a pharaoh to let His people go. This is why a society steeped in legislatively enshrined racism as recently as a few short decades ago was called to love its neighbors instead of separating from them. This is why a world that is plagued by violence today is called to long for a day when swords and spears will be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks. These calls are thousands of years old. But they still challenge us to change to this day.

Mr. Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western University where he recently, according to his column, “conducted a ‘trial’ of the Bible on the charge of being responsible for our environmental crisis.” Maybe it would have been useful, if, after this trial where his students questioned the Bible, Mr. Beal put his class in a trial where the Bible could have questioned them. After all, it may just be that our questions of the Bible aren’t the only ones that need to be asked. It may also just be that the Bible has even better questions of us than we do of it, such as, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’” (Proverbs 20:9)?

Mr. Beal concludes his column by revisiting those who have left and lost their faith – the Nones. He writes of them: “When it comes to religion, Nones are almost never nothing at all.” About this much he is certainly correct. The Nones believe something. They have some faith, even if it is an ad hoc faith. The question is: Is it the true faith?

Maybe before we ask questions of faith, we ought to first ask this question of ourselves.

November 18, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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