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.