From the Editor:
Our Excellent ARIS Adventure
by Mark Silk
participant-observation in the news media doesn’t prepare you for being in
the eye of a media storm yourself. And that’s where we were, thanks to the
2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). The third large
telephone survey conducted by Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar—our colleagues
at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture-—sailed
out into the world March 9 under the banner of the college’s Program on
Public Values, and never looked back.
With the help of USA Today’s
bells and whistles, Trinity ARIS (as we’re calling it) turned into the
biggest national story of the week, with the possible exception of President
Obama’s announcement of his new policy on embryonic stem cell research.
There was news coverage galore—on network television and radio, in
newspapers domestic and foreign, to say nothing of talk shows and the
Do a Google search, and you get
100,000 or so references. As of this writing, the Trinity ARIS website
been visited nearly 70,000 times. That may not amount to much beside a
YouTube sensation like Susan Boyle, but for an academic report, it’s nothing
short of amazing.
What actually caught the world’s
eye was the revelation that since the first of the surveys in 1990, the
number of Americans adults who say they have no religion has grown two and a
half times, their proportion of the population nearly doubling from 8.2
percent to 15 percent. This amounts to two-thirds of the 10 point national
decline in self-identified Christians, from 86 percent to 76 percent.
That finding was canonized in
“The End of Christian America,” Newsweek’s April 4 cover story by
editor John Meacham. Not since Time’s April 8, 1966 “Is God Dead?”
cover has so stark a religious message adorned an American newsweekly.
It put Trinity ARIS right up there with Time’s notorious Death of God
But in fact, the increase in
no-religion Americans—the “Nones”—was not really news. It was the 2001 ARIS,
the second of the surveys, that registered the big bump (to 14.1 percent).
Since 2001, the proportion of Nones has grown by less than one point—and
Christian self-identification has declined by less than one (with the actual
number of self-identified American Christians increasing by over 450
So why wasn’t the rise of the
Nones and the decline of the Christians a big story back when it was
The press release that announced
the ARIS on October 25, 2001, did highlight the increase in Nones as “one of
the most striking 1990-2001 comparisons.” But Gustav Niebuhr’s story in the
New York Times the same day chose instead to focus on the survey’s
finding that the number of Muslims in America was smaller than had
previously been estimated. For two months, the rest of the press followed
Niebuhr’s lead, and not just because he was writing for the Newspaper of
Record. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Islam held
center stage when it came to national religion coverage.
On the day before Christmas,
USA Today did take note of the increase in Nones, but the headline was
that America was still “one nation under God.” “Nation of Faith: Religion
Remains Central to Americans” cried the Daily Oklahoman’s
stop-the-presses editorial December 30. Not until March 2002 did the Nones
receive a full-dress treatment, in a three-story package by USA Today’s
Cathy Lee Grossman focusing on the Pacific Northwest, the country’s
least religiously identified region.
Grossman’s package attracted the
attention of religion reporters as well as of the irreligious, such that
when the occasion rose to do a story on the latter, the ARIS inevitably got
a mention, supplying evidence to demonstrate that they were in fact a
growing segment of American society. Yet in the post-9/11 world—the world of
Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush—“the rise of the Nones” was well outside
the prevailing narrative. Perhaps, some experts claimed, the finding was a
In the years since, other surveys
have shown that the 2001 ARIS got it right. But Pew, Baylor, and the General
Social Survey prefer to call the Nones “unaffiliated”—which permits the
comforting thought that at least some of them just don’t happen to belong to
a particular church at this particular time. And reassures the public that
these are not, God forbid, Americans who don’t believe in God (though a
disproportionate number of them don’t). While the confirmatory findings did
not grab the headlines, they made it clear to those who were paying
attention that Trinity ARIS’ finding of 15 percent Nones wasn’t much to
write home about.
But for the country at large, for
the world at large, it was big news because it fit into the current
narrative of Democratic ascendency, the election of Obama, the collapse of
the religious right, and the New Atheism. A culture digests no statistic
before its time.
So does the Trinity ARIS have
only an old story to tell? By no means. It shows, startlingly, a shift in
Catholicism’s center of gravity from the Northeast to the Southwest.
California is now more heavily Catholic than New England is—and New England
has become almost as religiously unidentified as the Pacific Northwest. This
is a measure of the latinization of the Catholic church, the result of
Latino immigration and a falling away of non-Hispanic Catholics (especially
those of Irish descent).
Then there is the changing face
of non-Catholic Christianity.
On one side, mainline
Protestantism seems to have gone from a condition of losing market share to
one of dying away. In 1990, those who identified with mainline denominations
constituted 18.7 percent of the American population. During the 1990s, their
share of the pie dropped to 17.2 percent even as their actual numbers
increased, from 32 million to just under 35 million. But since 2001, they
have shed 6.5 million adherents, and dropped proportionally to under 13
percent of the population.
Nor are the prospects for
recovery good. Demographically, mainliners are significantly older than
other segments of the Christian population. The future of non-Catholic
Christianity does not lie with them.
Where does it lie?
One of the great virtues of the
ARIS approach is that instead of offering an array of religious boxes for
respondents to put themselves in, it simply asks, “What is your religion, if
any?” If the respondent gives a generic answer like “Protestant” or
“Christian,” he or she is asked, “Which denomination?” Those who decline to
name one are simply listed as “Protestant” or “Christian Unspecified” or
In 1990, fewer than 200,000
adults identified themselves that way. In 2001, the number was
two-and-one-half million. In 2008, it was eight million. By contrast, the
“Protestants,” who weighed in at over 17 million in 1990, now comprise just
above 5 million, shrinking from 9.8 percent to just 2.3 percent of the
In 1990, these residual
Protestants made up two-thirds of the generic Christian category. Today,
they’re just one-sixth. Pretty clearly, the low-intensity “I’m just a
Protestant” is being rapidly replaced by the “I’m a non-denominational
Christian”—often a megachurch member—who resists further labeling as a
matter of affirmative religious commitment.
Since 1990, these
non-denominationals (including “Christians” and “evangelicals”) have
increased their share of the population from 5 percent to 8.5 percent to
11.8 percent. Soon they will outnumber the mainliners. Put them together
with the rest of the evangelical flock—Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.—and they
outnumber the mainliners by two to one. In another decade, the ratio will
likely be three to one.
In short, what church historian
Martin Marty called the two-party system of American Protestantism is in
collapse. A broad species of evangelicalism has become the norm for
non-Catholic Christianity in America, while the mainline has turned into a
large niche market. It is clear that this new reality has not been lost on
the Obama administration, whose faith outreach has been notable for its
focus on the evangelical community.
But what about those
Nones? Even if their increased numbers is not news, the increase remains in
need of explanation. Uniquely among all the ARIS findings, the rough
doubling in the None population has occurred in every state, in every racial
and ethnic group. This is a bona fide national religious phenomenon.
There’s little indication,
however, that the phenomenon has coincided with a change in American
religious behavior. It’s a change in labeling, a category shift.
Religion in America has become
less of an ascriptive and more of a chosen identity. A nation of seekers is
less inclined to identify with a childhood religion it no longer practices.
A normative evangelicalism requires an active faith commitment. A liberalism
of little faith wants no part of religion, if religious identity points to
explanatory mix, the category of having no religion—even unto unbelief—has
now established itself in American culture. As President Obama said in his
Inaugural Address, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and
Hindus, and nonbelievers.”
That is not to say that all Nones
are the same—that they express their no-religion status in the same way. In
the Pacific Northwest, the distinctive policy expression of None culture is
physician-assisted suicide, which last November became the law of the land
in Washington as well as Oregon. In New England, it is same-sex marriage,
which as of June had been adopted by every state in the region except Rhode
The explanation, I’d venture,
lies in the difference between a libertarian regional ethos and a
communitarian one. But that is a subject for another survey.
Silk's blog on religion and politics.