Is the Atheist Population Skyrocketing?

Dr. Jerry Newcombe is a key archivist of the D. James Kennedy Legacy Library, a spokesman and cohost of Kennedy Classics.
Dr. Jerry Newcombe is a key archivist of the D. James Kennedy Legacy Library, a spokesman and cohost of Kennedy Classics.

Will the last true Christian in America please turn out the lights on the way out? A recent study on religion and America that has received much attention has been interpreted by some to indicate that Christianity is on its virtual deathbed.

But as the saying goes, "The good news is the bad news is wrong."

The study comes from the respected Pew Research Center: "America's Changing Religious Landscape." The subtitle is: "Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow."

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They note that as recently as 2007, nearly eight in 10 Americans identify themselves as Christians; whereas today, that number is down to about seven in 10. Liberal mainline Protestants are losing the largest numbers; the number of self-identifying Catholics has also shrunk somewhat. Evangelicals are basically holding their own. Certainly, the church in all its branches has its work cut out for it.

But the biggest shocker is what we could call the rise of the "nones": "Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated---describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular'---has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%." This includes many young people who are part of the "nones."

Dr. Byron Johnson, a great researcher who often works with Gallup on the subject of religion in America, cautions us on the interpretation of the data. The author of the book, More God, Less Crime, Johnson teaches at Baylor and has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.

I asked Dr. Johnson about the new study, especially about the rise of the "nones." He said, "Don't be fooled, Jerry. We have some of the world's top religion scholars doing social science research. We publish books and scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals---the other side doesn't do either."

In a recent radio interview I did with him, Dr. Johnson made some fascinating remarks on the perceived decline of Christianity in America and the rise of the "nones."

He said, "There are these ongoing reports by the media that indicates religion is declining. Most of the secular media is looking for something that shows that religion is declining…so that's why you hear all these reports about the growth of atheism."

For example, says Johnson: "In one of their recent studies, Pew found that 44 percent of Americans are not affiliated with the religious tradition/denomination in which they were raised. That finding was interpreted to mean that 44 percent of Americans had abandoned the faith. But this simply acknowledges that Americans shop around in a highly competitive religious economy---looking for the best product. It's a sign of religion's vitality not a sign of leaving faith behind. "

He added, "Much to the chagrin of most of the media, atheism has remained flat for over seven decades. Four percent of Americans fall into that category. It hasn't changed. If atheism were on the rise, it would be such a phenomenal story. But instead, since it isn't, they have to do what they can to make us believe that it is."

But he cautioned, "You'd be blind not to know we have a secular society. But the reality is we have a religious society as well. It's very vibrant."

I asked him about the "nones" and their significant growth in recent times.

He answered: "There are a number of people who would mark 'none,' n-o-n-e, on a survey, and two or three questions later will give you the name and address of a place [house of worship] they regularly attend, and guess what? Almost all of these are non-denominational, evangelical churches. I'm not saying all of the 'nones' are evangelical." But many of them are.

Here's the rub: Are all the "nones" (or even a majority of them) atheists? No, says Johnson: "The 'nones' have been equated with atheism. That's what's really going on here. The number of 'nones' is growing, and it is true. But what I'm saying to you is that when you unpackage it, it looks completely different."

In other words, the recently released report is being interpreted by some to indicate that America is becoming more atheistic because of the increase of those who list no religious identification. He said that's where interpreters of the Pew study are in error.

Meanwhile, how many evangelicals are in the country at present? Using a three-fold criterion to define an evangelical (i.e., one who has accepted Jesus as Savior, believes in the authority of the Bible, and shares the faith), Johnson says based on years of his surveying, there are about 100 million. "That's a huge, huge category."

All this reminds me of the Mark Twain line: "The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

Dr. Jerry Newcombe is a key archivist of the D. James Kennedy Legacy Library and a Christian TV producer. He has also written or co-written 23 books, including The Book That Made America: How the Bible Formed Our Nation and (with D. James Kennedy), What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? His views are his own.

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