Tuesday, October 22, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Eclipse of Christianity in America: The Reshaped Religious Landscape and Our Call to Faithful Witness
Christians concerned about the world around us and our own world need to look at a sober new report coming out of the Pew Research Center about further changes in the American religious landscape. How is this for a headline? Consider these words: "In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace."
That's one of those headlines that previous generations of Christians in the United States could not have conceived. They couldn't have imagined it, because, as you go back to, say, even the midpoint of the 20th century, evangelical Christians believed that Christianity in the United States was on the ascent, not the descent.
But the report from Pew tells us, and I quote, "The religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid clip. In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults described themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular, now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009."
So we're talking about research that would compare a period of just under a decade, 2009 to about 2018 into 2019, and Pew is telling us that we are watching the reshaping of America religiously right before our eyes. We're looking at it in not only one lifetime, we're looking at tremendous change in just one decade. What we are seeing is that the United States is now following the example of Western Europe and many other modern nations in secularizing at an accelerating pace.
This research is, of course, sobering, as we think about our nation and understand it as a mission field. We understand that, in just about a ten-year period, the percentage of Americans who identified as Christians ... Now, this isn't a theological x-ray or MRI. It doesn't tell us whether they are actually believing Christians. The important thing here to understand is that this represents an institutional decline of Christianity in the United States. We're looking at a full 12-point drop in the percentage of Americans who even identify as Christian, now down to 65%.
Meanwhile, again, we're looking at the fact that, on the other side of the equation, the number of Americans, the percentage of Americans who indicate that they are now religiously unaffiliated is up from 17% in 2009 to 26%, and even far more alarming, as we shall see, is the generational breakdown of that pattern.
The Pew report goes on to tell us, "Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009, and one in five adults are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population, a group also known as a religious nones, N-O-N-E-S, have seen their numbers swell."
One specific data point in the Pew research is that, over the same time period – about ten years — the percentage of Americans who identify as atheist, explicitly self-described atheist, is now up to 4%. That doesn't sound like much, until you recognize that that's a doubling in right at a decade, from 2% to 4%. You could do the math and recognize that, decade by decade, as the percentage itself grows and the velocity increases, we're looking at the fact that there is a lot more room in America's religious landscape for atheists than at any point in the nation's history.
One term that's used in the Pew study should have our attention, and that is the term "disaffiliation." This tells us of people who previously would have been religiously affiliated, but who now say they are unaffiliated, or they indicate no affiliation. This disaffiliation is a bigger issue than just identifying, in one way or another, with some kind of religious group or some kind of faith tradition, as some people would call it. Disaffiliation, in this case, means moving out of any kind of explicit religious identity.
Now, that's important to us, because, if you were to look at a study of the American people at some other decade, you would likely see that the dynamic is competition between the different belief systems, specifically, between denominations, even between Protestants and Catholics, a contest for the percentage of affiliation amongst the population. But now you're looking at the fact that the big growth is actually in the non-affiliated, and when you're looking at this amount of time, you're really talking, as the Pew Center says, about disaffiliation. You're talking about a lot of these people becoming disaffiliated in their own lifetimes.
In order to understand this report and its meaning for Christians, I wanted to look at the specific question asked. Here's the question: "What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox, such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?" Now, again, over the ten-year period, atheism doubled from 2% to 4%, but the big growth was in the nothing in particular, no religious affiliation.
The study also looked at church attendance rates. Now, again, this isn't looking at reports offered by congregations. It's looking at how individuals report their own church attendance. In previous decades, the suspicion was that people reported religious attendance that was greater than the fact, but now it looks like that may no longer even be the case. People may no longer even feel like they're supposed to say or will be better thought of if they say that they attend church more regularly.
I quote again from the text of the report, "The data shows that, just like rates of religious affiliation, rates of religious attendance are declining. Over the last decade, the share of Americans who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month dropped by seven percentage points, while the share who say they attend religious services less often, if at all, has risen by the same degree. In 2009, regular worship attenders,” those who attend religious services at least once or twice a month, “outnumbered those who attend services only occasionally or not at all, by a 52 to 47% margin."
Listen to the next words closely. "Today, those figures are reversed. More Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less than those who say they attend at least monthly. That's 54% to 45%." That's one of those shocking figures that tells us that, in a brief amount of time — we're only talking about nine or ten years here — you're looking at a reversal of the situation, from the majority to minority, from minority to majority, and, of course, the big implication here is that these trends are only going to continue.
Pew goes on to break down in greater detail some of these patterns. There's a partisan dynamic here. We've seen that before. It's affirmed in this study, Democrats are secularizing. Those who identify as Democratic are secularizing at a far greater percentage and faster than those who identify as Republicans.
But, most importantly, the huge distinction in disaffiliation is between those who are younger and those who are older. As they say, the growth in the disaffiliated or the religiously unaffiliated "is most pronounced among young adults." If anything, that is an understatement, and that fact, above all, should have our attention.
Looking at the generation known as the Millennials, only 49% even described themselves as Christians. That's astoundingly low as compared to other recent American generations. One other very interesting data point is the number 22, because it's identical at both ends of the spectrum. Amongst Millennials, 22% say that they regularly attend church services, and 22% say that they never attend religious services. That's 22 and 22. The big factor here is the increase in those who do not attend and the decrease in those who do.
Out of love for the church, we're very interested in a clarification that Pew made later in the report: "Today, 62% of Christians say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month, which is identical to the share who said the same in 2009. In other words," said Pew, "the nation's overall rate of religious attendance is declining not because Christians are attending church less often, but rather because there are now fewer Christians as a share of the population."
That's really important. It tells us that those who do identify as Christians and identify as those who attend church, they are not attending church less often. There's no decrease in their own church participation, but rather, the decrease is entirely due to a shrinking percentage of the nation's population who identify as Christian in the first place.
Another section of the report affirms something that has been demonstrated and documented for a long time, not only in research, but in the experience of churches and congregations, and that is that there is a gender or sex distinction when it comes to disaffiliation, as well. Women are still more likely to identify as Christian, and they are more likely to attend church than men.
This has always represented a challenge for the Christian Church, which is one of the reasons why the church has to be extremely clear in preaching the Gospel and teaching God's Word in such a way as to make very clear the responsibility of men. A simple editorial comment here comes that a church that sends an uncertain signal about why men are important to Christianity and why devotion to Christ is important to men shouldn't be surprised that men do not come.
Later in the report, there is another rather astounding data point. It is this: "Catholics no longer constitute a majority of the U.S. Hispanic population." According to this report, only 47% of Hispanics in the United States described themselves as Catholic. That's down from 57% a decade ago. Meanwhile, even more shocking, you now have 23% of those who identify as Hispanic who identify as religiously unaffiliated. That's up from 15% in 2009. That is a huge and a largely unexpected trendline.
To put the matter right where many evangelical congregations live, the expectation has been that, in evangelism and church outreach to Hispanic populations and neighbors, the assumption has often been that their religious affiliation would be understood traditionally, especially in their family tradition, as being Roman Catholic. But now, that represents, in any active affiliation, less than half of Hispanics in the United States. According to this data, the situation is such now that when you meet an individual identified as Hispanic in the United States, there's almost a one out of four chance that that individual claims absolutely no religious affiliation.
Another data point important for evangelicals in the United States, and particularly for Southern Baptists, is knowing that the decline in affiliation as Protestant was more acute in the South than in other regions of the country over the last decade. Protestants in the South now account for 53% of the adult population, but that's down from 64% in 2009.
Toward the end, the report turns to the partisan divide: "Religious nones now make up fully one third of Democrats, and about six in ten people who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party say they attend religious services no more than a few times a year. The ranks of religious nones and infrequent church goers are also growing within the Republican party, though they make up smaller shares of Republicans than Democrats."
Once again, we see how all of these issues are actually intertwined and connected in an increasingly consistent way, as worldview and the logic of the worldview works its way out towards greater consistency - or, to put it another way, when cultural pressures mean that everyone, regardless of worldview, has to answer questions that previous generations did not have to answer, like, "Can you use the word 'boy' or 'girl?' What exactly is marriage?" This is forcing a lot of these issues to the surface.
The word I used to describe this report was "sobering." Just consider some of the headlines at Axios: "Americans Are Increasingly Shedding Their Religious Affiliations." Rod Dreher at the American Conservative ran an article, the headline "Christianity Collapsing in America."
I'm not ready to use that kind of language, but I know exactly why Rod Dreher did. As we analyze the meaning of this report and what we should learn from it, let's recognize that this new data from the Pew Research Center is important. With hard numbers, it confirms what we've observed for decades now: We're witnessing the rapid and we are witnessing the accelerating secularization of America.
Secularization, in its purest sense, means exactly what we are looking at here, what's documented in this report — falling rates of religious identity and affiliation, church attendance and participation, and that is explained by the fundamental reordering of the worldview in a less theistic and far more secular direction. Put together, it becomes clear that these numbers indicate a disappointing pattern of lessening identification with Christianity and falling church attendance rates. There's also no sign that these trends will be slowed, much less reversed.
This is, for Christians, we need to recognize a confirmation of the fact that our nation is growing more distant from the Gospel, more distant from Christ, and hardening its resistance to Christian truth. These changes have been visible for some time, but there's a startling new velocity to the changes and one that we in our churches had better look at closely, and we had better think hard about them and what they mean. The saving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ remains as true as ever, but the fact is that the evangelistic landscape of our nation is changing right before our eyes.
The rise of self-identified unbelievers as a significant percentage of the population is one very important factor, but the falling rates of church participation among those who identify as Christians is perhaps more alarming, and, beyond that, the falling percentage of Americans who identify as Christians.
But, of course, from a Gospel perspective, we're not primarily concerned with those who identify as Christians. We're primarily concerned with who knows the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior, who has professed Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, who has come to a saving knowledge of Christ with the repentance of sin and the gift of everlasting life. Where are the Christians - not merely those who identify as Christians?
But, thinking about the larger society and the role that Christianity plays in our society, certainly, historically, we come to understand that the decreased percentage of Americans who identify as Christians will mean massive changes in America socially, politically, economically, and certainly morally. Again, all this points to the fact that the United States is now following the sad example of Europe, becoming, effectively, a post-Christian culture.
When we say a post-Christian culture, we do not mean that Christianity is post or past. What we mean is that the society generally is moving in such a secular direction that it has no living knowledge of Christianity. It is effectively a society that was once largely evangelized, but is no longer.
A growing percentage of Americans operate outside of a Christian framework of reality, and this had better awaken American Christians to the new evangelistic and missions challenge right before our eyes and right in our own neighborhoods. Our nation is evermore becoming one vast mission field, with growing numbers of Americans who have virtually no knowledge of Christianity at all. We're going to have to rethink how we see our own nation, and we're going to have to redouble, again and again, our commitment to share Christ.
These changes will mean a reshaped moral landscape, of course. The eclipse of Christianity and the rise of secularism means less commitment to Christian morality, especially sexual morality, and points toward greater hostility towards those who contend for Christian morality. Secularization has immediate theological consequences, but comes with moral and political consequences as well.
These are sobering trends, no doubt, but Christians can handle the truth. Our responsibility, regardless of the survey data, is to teach and preach and tell and take the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. This new report from the Pew Research Center should make us even more determined to be faithful in our evangelism, starting right at home.
Techies in Therapy: Self Help in Silicon Valley as a Disguised Form of Spirituality
Next, thinking of right at home, we turn to Silicon Valley, a part of the United States that is, if anything, a leading cultural indicator for the rest of the nation. One of the things we need to keep in mind is the basic Christian understanding that people are not generally more and less religious. Actually, they just pour themselves into different religions, and they're looking for different religious experiences. Some people are religious about their diet. They're religious about their sex lives. They're religious about their toys. But now, just as if to make the point, the New York Times runs a major article, the headline "Silicon Valley Goes to Therapy."
The article is by reporter and Nellie Bowles. She writes, "Silicon Valley told itself a good story — the best one, really. It was saving the world for nearly a decade. This gave the modern tech worker purpose, optimism, and self-confidence. Then came the bad headlines, followed by worst headlines, about the industry, about the country, about the world. In search of reassurance, tech workers commandeered the old hippie retreat Esalen, co-oped Burning Man, got interested in psychedelics and meditation. It wasn't enough. Now," she tells us," across Silicon Valley, anxious tech workers are finally admitting they have a problem, and they're going to therapy."
Therapy is the high church of the modern culture of the psychotherapeutic. The fact that this appears in the business section of the New York Times has at least something to do with the fact that all of these young techies in Silicon Valley rushing to therapy are also merging life and their new therapeutic reality with business models. They're coming up with new startups of Silicon Valley therapy, an array of apps, another experimental, entrepreneurial, new therapeutic modalities that the youngsters of Silicon Valley have decided just might not only make them happy and whole and therapeutically comprehensive, but might also make them millionaires.
After reviewing several of these apps, the reporter tells us, "I contacted a bunch of the San Francisco area's traditional therapists and life coaches to ask if anything was changing among their clients. Several told me that, a couple of years ago, clients were coming in mostly because of personal issues, but now they were reporting anxiety about global trends like climate change and the rise of dictatorships. In response, some old-line therapists are shifting towards the new market."
I simply want to inject here that if you're going to a therapist because of the rise of dictatorships or any other kind of meta-political issue, just keep in mind that, over the course of human history, people have often had to go to war over these issues, not merely to therapy. It actually takes a good bit of personal distance from these issues to even create the opportunity of going to therapy. But maybe that's another point.
The article in the New York Times is overtly spiritual, even if not overtly theological. It talks about San Francisco, where there is "a long-standing local group for existentialism." That's existentialist philosophy. "The Existential Humanistic Institute, founded in 1997, is a collective," we're told, "of therapists and philosophers who've been puttering along in mostly quiet private practice for years, working with clients who are struggling not only with relatively ordinary issues, but also with their very purpose on earth."
But you will remember that the article began with the fact that there were many tech workers who, we were told, were in anxiety about their own industry and whether or not it was a negative or positive force in society. But the article ends by declaring the stirring of the "tech positivity movement."
That's another issue about therapy. The entire worldview of the therapeutic revolves around the self. Eventually, it's the self that's choosing the therapist and the therapy and is paying the therapist bills, and the self had better believe that it's a very positive self, or at least that participating in the therapy will make the self more positive. That's why there has been so much attention to basic positivity, positive thinking, positive attitudes — rebranded, of course, for those who are sophisticated enough to be the denizens of Silicon Valley.
As reporter Nellie Bowles tells us, "There is even a countermovement pushing back on too much self-reflection and news-driven self-flagellation. Its leaders argue that the old optimism worked just fine and that Silicon Valley must march forward. Followers," we are told, "can be found rallying tightly behind the militant sunniness of venture capitalist Twitter. There, the old fathers of the industry, send out a constant stream of start-up bromides. This is the tech positivity movement."
The big issue here to keep in mind is that, as Christian identification or affiliation goes down, something else is going to go up, and it's not just those who identify as unaffiliated. It's with those who are demonstrating their religious impulse, their own do-it-yourself spirituality, in the form of the article that is here telling us about the techies in Silicon Valley going after therapy. Note this: The therapy really is a very thinly disguised form of spirituality.
Grandparents Traveling to Costa Rica for Hallucinogenic Drink: The Startling Lengths Some Will Go to Hear Their Soul Say “I’m Okay”
But then, just last Thursday, as if to make the point even more strongly and weirdly, an article, also in the New York Times, this one by Casey Schwartz and titled "Psychedelics in the Golden Years," the subhead, "Some older adults are dabbling in the hallucinogen ayahuasca. It's mostly illegal in the United States."
Schwartz writes, "At 74, the venture capitalist George Sarlo might not have seemed an obvious candidate for an ayahuasca experience. Mr. Sarlo, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1956, has had great professional success as the co-founder of Walden Venture Capital. He lives in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood, in a large house with an unrestricted view of the Golden Gate Bridge. But yet, something was always lacking."
The whole point of this article, which is, after all, datelined, especially in its first illustration, from San Francisco, is about the surprising trend of older, even elderly or aged Americans experimenting with this drug, this herbal drug called ayahuasca that we discussed first on The Briefing on September the 20th, in terms of New Age therapy. But now we're talking about a New York Times article about older Americans even breaking the law or going to foreign nations in order to undergo the spiritual experience of this hallucinogen.
But something else we have to know - and this was mentioned at least in some of the coverage back on September the 20th — ayahuasca is not only hallucinogenic, it is also — I'm not even sure there's a word for this — it causes excretions from every part of the body that can excrete. I choose to put it that way. The language about these older people using ayahuasca has to do with what is almost like a séance-like experience. In this case, this particular man, Mr. Sarlo, claims that he was able to be in a conversation with his father, now long dead.
The New York Times article takes us to Costa Rica and to a resort or spa, whatever you would call it, that features the ayahuasca experience. It's called Rhythmia, and we are told by the director that the motivation for trying ayahuasca differs "as one may expect according to age. It's the younger guests," the Times tells us, "35 to 55, who tend to come because of problems they’re having, strained relationships, blocked careers. But for the 65-plus demographic, the question is often closer to ‘What is my purpose?’”
Again, just a note: This is not really secular. The language here is of spirituality. And the self, the positivity of the self, is also reflected here. Later in the article, we read, "At Rhythmia, all guests are screened in a medical intake, both before and upon arrival. As it happened, one couple here, both husband and wife, both aged, wound up having profound experiences that week. The wife spoke of her experiences and said this: 'I had been denying my soul, and my soul was trying to speak to me. It was trying to say, "I'm okay.”’”
Reporting what we might consider to be an obvious observation, Casey Schwartz writes, "People might startle at the image of someone old enough to be their grandparents willingly embarking on a night of hallucinations and vomiting. But Sophia Rokhlin, co-author of a new book on ayahuasca, When Plants Dream, said that when it came to the tradition of drinking ayahuasca, "Nothing could be more natural."
As we close today, just consider this: the plausibility structures of a society. We are a society in which it is increasingly less plausible to Americans that they should consider themselves Christians. But this is the New York Times, and this isn't the only article. We're being told that it's now increasingly plausible to many Americans that they should go to Costa Rica and imbibe this very bitter drink that brings about hallucinations and other things in order to hear their soul say, "I'm okay."
These articles come to us as startling, but very effective reminders of the new challenges we face, theologically, evangelistically, apologetically, pastorally, and in every other way, including our understanding of worldview in an increasingly post-Christian America.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Fort Worth, Texas, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.