“There’s no longer evidence for a need of God, even less of Christ. The so-called traditional churches look like they are dying.”
It matters who said this. If it came from Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens – the Four Horsemen of the New Apocalypse – few would accept it as an objective assessment. But the author of this quote was Pope Benedict XVI.
The Pope’s candor fits well with other research sponsored by churches. When you count the people in the pews on Sunday rather than having a pollster ask whether or not they attend church, fewer than 18% attend church regularly. From 1980 to 2005 in the Southern Baptist Church, baptisms of people between eighteen and thirty four – in other words, their next generation of leaders – fell 40 percent, from 100,000 in 1980 to 60,000 in 2005.
But the U.S. population grew by 27% during those 25 years, so the Baptists would have had to baptize 127,000 in 2005 just to stay even; they really fell by 52%. In 2006, the Southern Baptists – who claim almost six times more members than any other white evangelical church – made a concerted effort to baptize one million people. Not only did they fall over two-thirds short, they actually baptized even fewer than they had the year before.
You might think that some faith group must have grown during the last thirty years, and you’d be right: atheists and nonbelievers more than doubled in the eleven years between 1990 and 2001, from 14 million to 29 million: from 8% of the country to 14%. There are more than twice as many atheists and nonbelievers as there are evangelical Christians. And since it’s hard to believe that all atheists/nonbelievers would be willing to confess that to pollsters, the number is probably much higher. From 2000 to 2005, church attendance fell in all fifty states.
Nor is this trend a new phenomenon: American churches have not kept up with population growth in over a century.
Then, to add insult to injury, when a sampling of non-Christians were asked to rate eleven groups in terms of respect, they rated evangelicals tenth. Only prostitutes ranked lower.
Are believers more moral? No. When pollster George Barna – himself an evangelical – looked at seventy moral behaviors, he didn’t find any difference between the actions of those who were born-again Christians and those who weren’t. His studies and other indicators show that divorce among born-agains is as common as, or more common than, among other groups. One study showed that wives in traditional, male-dominated marriages were three times more likely to be beaten than wives in egalitarian marriages.
Evangelicals constitute not 25 percent of the U.S. population – as they have claimed – but at most 7 percent, and their numbers are falling, not rising. All these numbers come from the churches themselves. (Wicker, p. 67) While evangelical women make up at least 3.5% of the population (half of 7%), they make up about 20% of the women who get abortions.
“The Spirit,” as the Gospel of John says, “blows where it will.” Where is it blowing now? Adding together the data from pollsters, evangelical researchers and Pope Benedict XVI, it’s not a stretch to say the Spirit – the spirit of life and the truth that can make you more free – has settled in the land of atheists, nonbelievers, and church alumni.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Pope Benedict admits the obvious: