The recent report from the Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Study of 35,000 U.S adults indicates a slow but steady decline between 2007 and 2014 in the percentage of those who self-identify as Christians, from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. The same drop is seen in total numbers, down from 178 million to 173 million.
Within Christianity as a whole, the greatest decline has been among mainline Protestants, from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent, and Roman Catholics, from 23.9 percent to 20.8 percent. The rate of decline among Evangelical Protestants is significantly less at about 1 percent.
Another key finding is the increase in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation at all - the so-called "nones." This includes the 7 percent of Americans who self-identify as atheists or agnostics.
These trends are no doubt alarming to people for whom religious faith and practice is a central and defining element of our lives. It is good to ask ourselves why we find this reported decline in religious affiliation so troubling.
Do we perhaps feel weakened solidarity, less general support for our own religious commitment? Do we worry about the impact of declining religiosity on the moral climate of our nation? Are we concerned about the eternal fate of non-believers? Are we a bit guilty about the apparent inadequacy of our efforts to share our faith with others - especially younger adults? Are we angry that scandals in the Church have damaged its credibility and alienated some of its former members? Are we afraid that the secular mood of our society is winning out? Or is there another reason?
Whenever I come across a discouraging report on the state of religious belief and commitment, it forces me to ponder more deeply why my own Catholic faith is such a potent and enduring dimension of my existence. And why I believe that every person with a healthy, positive, mature and informed religious commitment is (potentially, at least) more fully human, more fully alive, more inclined to compassion and service to others.
University of Notre Dame Professor Christian Smith's extensive research on the religious lives of U.S. teens (ages 13-17) and emerging adults (18-23) offers encouraging data that indicate positive life outcomes among young adults who are more religious:
Whether we focus on relationships with parents, giving and volunteering, participation in organized activities, substance abuse, risky behaviors, moral compassion, physical health, bodily self image, mental and emotional well-being, locus of control, life satisfaction, life purpose, feeling gratitude, educational achievement, resistance to consumerism, pornography use, or potentially problematic sexual activity, the more religious emerging adults are consistently doing better in these measures than the least religious emerging adults. "Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults" (NY: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 297)
Interesting and encouraging social science data, to be sure.
But is not the fundamental question whether God is real and, for Christians, whether we believe in the message of John 3:16: God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life?
If your answer is yes, confidently and gratefully yes, you will not become a statistic of declining Christianity. If your answer is yes, get to work on the New Evangelization and share the joy of your faith with everyone you meet!