The unchurched and the post-Christian

One of the interesting things is how news items snowball. The realization that there are a lot of non-religious people out there in the US has resulted in a greater level of interest in what being non-religious means and how many of us there actually are. This has turned out to be rather difficult to do. It has not helped that nonbelievers tend to resist being pigeonholed and there has been a proliferation of labels used by them to self-identify, such as atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, and the like.

All of them share the feature that they refer in some way to the views and/or attitudes vis-à-vis religion held by the person and not all of them reject outright the existence of a supernatural deity, though it is safe to say that they all rule out the kinds of deities that are described in the holy books of religions. At most they may have some vague sense of transcendence that is hard to pin down. In fact the umbrella term that I used of ‘nonbelievers’ may be too vague (nonbelief in what?) and also too strong in that some may have some sort of quasi-religious beliefs that they tend to label as ‘spiritual’.

On the other hand, we also have the phenomenon of what can be called ‘survey Christians’, people who “don’t want to cut ties with their parents or go all the way to atheism so they just say ‘Christian’ since it is the default category from their heritage.”

As David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group says, asking people about their beliefs does not result in a clear picture.

“For decades, our research shows the variations of asking people about faith. For example, many self-described atheists also claim to pray to a deity. Long-time churchgoers often lack basic orthodox beliefs. People who effortlessly self-describe as ‘Christian’ may live like practical atheists in most other parts of their lives.”

But there is another way to identify this group and that is not by their beliefs but by their practices, the extent to which they formally practice some aspect of religion. This is somewhat more concrete and thus the numbers should be more easy to pin down. This has spawned a different set of surveys to find out to what extent people pray, read their holy books, belong to religious institutions, take part in religious observances either individually or collectively, or otherwise identify with religion This has led to a different set of descriptors such as ‘nones’ or the ‘unaffiliated’, indicating those who have no formal ties with religious institutions.

Now the Barna group that regularly surveys religious beliefs in the US has come up with yet another category that straddles the beliefs-practices divide and arrives at those they refer to as the ‘unchurched’. They have created a 15-point metric that combines both approaches and used it to arrive at a profile of people they term ‘post-Christian’. To qualify for the label of ‘post-Christian you had to get at least 60% or 9 out of the 15. It turns out that this post-Christian group is much larger (38%) than the numbers you would expect from the numbers you get when you ask people to describe themselves.

Based on Barna’s aggregate metric, nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population (37%) qualifies as post-Christian. This includes 9% of Americans who are highly post-Christian—lacking engagement in 80% or more of the measures of belief, practice or commitment. And another one-quarter is moderately post-Christian (28%), without engaging at least 60% of the factors.

(You can take the survey yourself. I did and got a score of 7% that classifies me as ‘pretty secular’. This is puzzling because I think that the 7% means that I scored just 1 out of the 15 in favor of religion. But I cannot imagine what answer I gave would qualify to be interpreted in that way.)

As Kinnaman says:

In other words, in spite of our “Christian” self-descriptions, more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice. If nothing else, this helps explain why America has experienced a surge in unchurched people—and presages a continuing rise in this population.”

The term ‘post-Christian’ is an interesting one. It was used by the former Archbishop of Canterbury to describe Britain as a country that has a Christian heritage but no longer practices Christian beliefs in any significant way. The term may catch on here too.


  1. Mobius says

    Yesterday, my neighbor informed me that he, too, is one of those who never attends church.

    Considering that he attends worship services at his non-denominational congregation at least twice a week, I am not sure how he is defining “church”.

  2. Mobius says

    I took the survey and I too got a 7% rating. And, as you, I can’t imagine what answer I gave that was religious.

    I will point out that one question is rather loaded…”Jesus never committed sins”. This assumes the existence of “sin” which is a religious concept. So damned it you do and damned if you don’t. Actually, assuming Jesus actually existed, I would have to say Jesus never committed sins since sins don’t exist. But in answering the survey, I did say “disagree”.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mobius @2: It’s not loaded if you consider context. Assuming Jesus existed, and ‘sins’ are defined according to general Christian beliefs, it’s hard to imagine he never felt envy, lust, etc. So an easy ‘disagree’.

    Like you and Mano, I have no idea where my 7% came from. Maybe it’s a freebee granted through grace.

  4. Johnny Vector says

    Mobius: I think the existence of Jesus is an equally important assumption inherent in ”Jesus never committed sins”. And, after reading me some Carrier, I feel safe in saying he probably didn’t. Exist, I mean. Jesus, I mean. Not Carrier. I’m pretty sure he exists.

    But yeah, I went ahead and checked “disagree”, and got my score of 7. Oh well.

  5. Dunc says

    Yeah, 7% here too, from answering “No” or “Disagree” to every question except “I am an atheist (or agnostic)”, to which I answered “Yes”. I did manage to score 0 by answering “Not Sure” to every question where that was an option, so I guess they’ve decided that having an opinion at all means you’re still influenced by religion. A pretty questionable assumption if you ask me…

    I also notice that since they’ve used checkboxes for the options, you can check all of the answers to all of the questions. That gets you a zero too.

    My conclusion? Their survey is flawed.

  6. oualawouzou says

    I was puzzled by the question on weither or not one has read the Bible recently. I *suppose* answering “yes” labels you as religious… but I don’t need to point out examples of atheists who know the Bible inside out, much better than many self-proclaimed christians.

  7. smhll says

    The Millennial generation is large enough to distort trends, like the Baby Boom did. Perhaps when Millennials are old enough that most of them have children, the number of temporary Christians who go to church because they perceive a benefit for their kids will swing up again?

  8. Mano Singham says


    I was concerned about the Bible question too. If I had taken the survey last week, I would have and to answer ‘yes’ to that question because I was reading bits of the book of Jonah for a post.

  9. busterggi says

    Well there were several post black plague populations as well as post other great epidemic populations. If humanity survived those it should survive religion.

  10. scottbelyea says

    Also got the puzzling 7%.

    Poorly worded questions in some cases. Examples – donated money, attended worship service, read the Bible, volunteered at church. Have done all those as a result of friendships with church members and admiration for church programs. Nothing to do with my personal beliefs.

  11. says

    Mano @8
    They are rather assuming that you read the Bible to agree with it. I have a bible app (complete with vulgate, LXX, and all sorts of other crap) on my iPhone and quite often refer to it. Definitely does not make me religious, quite the opposite! 🙂

  12. drdale says

    If you take the quiz without answering any questions your score is 0. If you choose yes to, “Are you an atheist?”, your score is 7.

  13. says

    Ah, interesting. So the way to get a 0 score would be to have never put any thought into whether you are an atheist or not? I can see a few merits in that, but only if it were explained better.

  14. Loren Petrich says

    I’m also 7%, evidently the lowest possible score for someone who takes that quiz.

    As to what sins Jesus Christ had committed, I’ve considered that issue, and I’ve concluded that he had committed numerous sins. Here’s some:
    * From the usual set of Ten Commandments — he worked on the Sabbath, he showed disrespect to his parents and he urged his followers to do likewise to theirs, and he got his followers to steal a colt and a donkey for him to ride into Jerusalem on.
    * From the Medieval Seven Deadly Sins — sloth: he has failed to make his Second Coming, wrath: getting angry at people who would not listen to him, cursing a certain fig tree, and throwing a Temple temper tantrum, pride: considering himself the Messiah, the King of the Jews, and even God himself.

  15. moarscienceplz says

    7% too.
    I think this is a pretty poor survey. Not only is the Jesus/sin question impossible for me to answer correctly (I’m fairly confident Jesus never existed, and, since Yahweh also doesn’t exist, who can say what a “sin” is?), the Bible question is probably scored backward. I’d bet that 100 random atheists have read more of the Bible than 100 random Christians have.

  16. Holms says

    Interestingly, David Silverman appears in the comments below the quiz, commenting on exactly the result oddity:

    “Dave Silverman October 24, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    “Pretty secular”? How about atheist? Isn’t that what “pretty secular” means? Also, how can I answer NO to everything and not have a score of zero?”

  17. lanir says

    After playing around with it for a couple minutes it looks like the only way the “Jesus” question upticks your score is to answer that you strongly believe he never sinned. Which is mostly fine as long as you don’t “strongly agree” that he never existed to do anything of any sort.

    The “atheist or agnostic” question is wrong. It needs the Yes and No reversed. Currently if you say no you’re not, you get +0% while a yes gets you +7%. Overall this doesn’t hugely affect the category however as you still need at least 3 other religious tags to move you out of the pretty secular category.

  18. Ed says

    Some of the questions were irrelevant to churchgoing and religiosity as such. Many practicing Christians don’t share the theological orientations the survey seemed to assume.

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