Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hold Yer Horses, Pardner!

Don has written a great essay regarding the "end" of religion. He is rightly skeptical of the methodology of the report he is remarking about. When scientists trained in one area get involved in another they are not trained in - without expert consultants in the area they are not trained in - one should definitely see red flags all over the place.

But hold your horses, pardner! That study isn't the only place this idea is coming from. This has been around for at least ten years.

An actual religious site,, has a remarkable series of web pages, organized like powerpoint slides, that illustrate their alarm regarding a long term decline in church attendance. The url for that series is:

It is entitled "Twelve Surprising Facts About the American Church". Here are the titles of those slides:

1. The percentage of people that attend a Christian church each weekend is far below what pollsters report.
2. The percentage of people attending a Christian church each weekend decreased significantly from 1990-2000.
3. Christian church attendance is between 1 ½ and 2 times higher in the South and the Midwest than it is in the West and the Northeast.
4. Only one state [Hawaii] saw an increase in the percentage attending church from 1990-2000. [California, Connecticut, Georgia, and Washington were close to keeping up with population growth.]
5. The percentage that attends church on any given weekend is declining in over two thirds of the counties in the United States. [Among the states with the highest percentages of declining counties were Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Carolina.]
6. Evangelicals, mainliners, and Catholics are strongest in very different regions of the country.
7. Churches with 50–299 people in attendance are shrinking, while the smallest churches and larger churches are growing.
8. Established churches, from 40–180 years old, on average decline in attendance.
9. The increase in the number of churches is about one eighth of what is needed to keep up with population growth.
10. The church-planting rate has been declining throughout the history of our country.
11. Existing churches are plateauing and new church growth provides less than half of the growth necessary to keep up with population growth.
12. If the present trends continue, the percentage of the population that attends church in 2050 will be almost half of what it is today.

In addition, another web site,, which is a wonderful site with tons and tons of fascinating information about all different religions. Their "About Us" page says the following:

"We are a multi-faith group. As of 2010-DEC, we consist of one Atheist, Agnostic, Christian, Wiccan and Zen Buddhist. Thus, the OCRT staff lack agreement on almost all theological matters, such as belief in a supreme being, the nature of God, interpretation of the Bible and other holy texts, whether life after death exists, what form the afterlife may take, etc."

They go on to state their beliefs in list form, a remarkable statement by itself.

My point here is to show that their purpose is informational, with no religious agenda. Under the heading of "Religious information and Practices", they have a page entitled, "How many North Americans attend religious
services (and how many lie about going)?" The url is:

Their page reports an interesting phenomenon, that the "reported" numbers of religious folks attending services is vastly over-reported, by as much as 100%. The page is definitely worth a look and taking some time to understand their points, which are several. As a matter of fact, I recommend the entire site for information regarding just about any religion, as their reporting has no overt agenda of either support or attack, and seems fairly, well, fair.

The upshot of this is to say that while Don and others are certainly right to be skeptical over the conclusions of a study of questionable methodology, that doesn't mean that their conclusions are wrong, but just may simply be wrong from the standpoint of the length of time until the end, or at lest the end of a major religious influence on society, culture and politics. (which, of course, may be different in different countries and areas of the world.)

Robert W. Ahrens


Vincent said...

I didn't realize Don was skeptical of the methodology. I've re-read his post and I don't see it. He appears skeptical about the broad applicability and the conclusion drawn by the researchers, but I couldn't tell any criticism was there regarding method.
What did I miss?

rwahrens said...

Nothing specific, it was just part of the tone of his essay, it felt as if he was a bit skeptical of it. It is possible that I read too much into it, of course, but that was my impression.

Don Wharton said...

Actually I was quite critical of the the methodology. The blanket assumption of the very positive utility for religious non-affiliation is contingent on many factors which might ceaase to exist. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act has resulted in most schools being designated as deficient. The religious right will want to use this to force the demise of secular public education. If that happens the relative utility of religious affiliation might change substantially. Fatuous mathematical number fiddling is no substitute for the hard work of understanding reality.