Study Lays Out Growing Post-Christian Landscape of America

The Barna Group measured the actual practice of Catholicism across the United States.

(photo: Unsplash)

WASHINGTON — For many Americans, the August eclipse will be the most transcendent experience of the year, as a new report illustrates the lack of Christian practice in the United States.

A July report by the Barna Group measured the prevalence of post-Christian life in America. Instead of relying on self-identification in the survey, Barna aimed to measure the actual practice of faith. Individuals who met more than nine out of 16 criteria — such as a disbelief in God or agreement that Jesus committed sins — qualified as “post-Christian.”

The survey of more than 76,000 national respondents, conducted from 2011 to 2016, found that in 10 cities at least 50% of the population is post-Christian.  

Roxanne Stone, editor in chief of Barna, told the Register the survey aims to “measure both the practice of your faith and measurement of indicators toward and away from religion and, really, Christianity.” By going beyond identification and investigating practices, Barna hopes to measure “a possible softening” of Christian belief and practice in Americans.

Stone said that the study showed typical demographic gaps between generations, with younger people more likely to be post-Christian. Political preferences factor significantly as well, with conservative respondents less likely to be post-Christian.

One reason for the higher rates of post-Christians in cities is that they tend to draw people who are uncomfortable with their former residence and culture. In addition, Stone said that large urban centers tend to expose people to unbelief more often, and many individuals without family nearby lack the “social pressure and social inertia” toward religion.

In Barna’s survey, 48% of Catholic respondents were post-Christian, though only 22% of practicing Catholics were. Stone acknowledged that some of the survey questions, such as “Are you born again?” use a religious vocabulary Catholics are typically unfamiliar with and said that future versions of the survey would address these differences.

The top 10 post-Christian cities, according to Barna’s data, are the geographic areas of Portland-Auburn, Maine (57%); Boston, Massachusetts-Manchester, New Hampshire (56%); Albany-Schenectady-Troy, New York (54%); Providence, Rhode Island-New Bedford, Massachusetts (53%); Burlington, Vermont-Plattsburgh, New York (53%); Hartford-New Haven, Connecticut (52%); New York, New York (51%); San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, California (50%); Seattle-Tacoma, Washington (50%); and Buffalo, New York (50%).


Abounding Grace

Mary Beth Coates, the Diocese of Buffalo’s director of lifelong faith formation, disagreed with some of the conclusions of the study. Some of the criteria, she told the Register, would have naturally low scores for Catholics.

“I would answer No,” she said, to the question of being “born again,” and Catholics have a different understanding of biblical accuracy. In general, “these questions rely upon a pretty high level of religious literacy, which, even in the more engaged Catholic communities, can be lacking,” she said.

Coates acknowledged that religious practice has been declining, due in part to a failure of evangelism by all denominations. Because of society’s rapid pace, she said, the Church must find “relevant ways to inculturate the Gospel more quickly than in generations past.”

But she finds the “post-Christian” label harmful because of the suggestion of Christianity’s end. Rather than seeing a post-Christian era, she said, the answers suggest “a new mission field for the Church today.”

Dominican Father Innocent Smith, vicar for formation at Sts. Vincent Ferrer and Catherine of Siena parishes in New York, told the Register it is important to remember that, even in a secular culture, the call to holiness is being lived out by many.

“Even in the midst of Babylon, as it were, there are saints in the making, or in our midst,” he said.

Many who have stopped practicing, said Father Smith, are reacting to what they think they know about their faith, but that can often be a caricature or a reaction to “something actually bad,” like the sexual-abuse scandal. Part of his work is to help them understand that “faith is not alien to their experience” and dispose them to encounter Christ and the Trinity.

“We’re trying to return people to a fundamental sense of what the faith is,” he said.

Father Smith said that even without preaching, the faith can make itself known, in something as simple as a religious habit.

“It’s a friendly, silent proposal that there is something worth hoping for.”


Signs of Renewal

Deacon Eric Paige, the Seattle Archdiocese’s executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship, told the Register there are “innumerable” periods of renewal in the life of the Church. When Time magazine, for example, printed its famous cover asking, “Is God Dead?” Mother Teresa was bringing hope to the poor throughout India.

Deacon Paige said two important signs of renewal in the archdiocese are an increase in Eucharistic adoration, and growth in the number of lay ministers working in parishes. Adoration has brought new life to the archdiocese, he said; and since 2011, the number of people serving in ministerial roles, such as lectors or extraordinary ministers of Communion, has grown by 23%.

The contemporary situation of cities like Seattle, he said, is not a new situation in the life of the Church. Like Corinth in the time of St. Paul, Seattle is cosmopolitan and newly prosperous, a city that has risen to international prominence and is spiritually unsatisfied.

Working from the kerygma, or initial encounter and dedication to Christ, Paige said, tends to be “the most effective” outreach to people. Sharing the Gospel with those around us might be awkward initially, he said, but “if we do it out of love, they’re going to appreciate it. They might not tell us immediately, but they will ultimately.”

Edward Trendowski, director of faith formation for the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, told the Register that “speaking the truth in love” is the foundation of Christian witness. That depends on being ready to give a reason for hope in Christ and also being fully committed to both truth and love in a conversation.

Bishop Thomas Tobin has encouraged his diocese to evangelize “since the Church exists to evangelize,” Trendowski said. One aspect of this is reaching out to disaffected Catholics or Catholics who “do not seem to show evidence of a profound initial conversion to Christ.” Trendowski said a particular problem is parents who drop children off for religious education but then skip Sunday Mass. Bringing those parents closer to Christ and the Church “can help the parish church and Catholic schools in handing on the faith to their children.”

In the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, Bishop Christopher Coyne told the Register that his approach has been to “follow the example of the early Church,” which immersed itself in the world and Christianized what was best. He has encouraged his diocese to become involved in work that supports the common good and Christianize it when possible.

“Witness by deeds, and respond when possible with words of faith,” he said.

“The challenge,” Bishop Coyne said, “is to counter the attitude among some that people of religious faith are not substantial people and that we do not have anything to say or anything to bring to the table in the state of Vermont.”

Philip Lawson, the diocesan executive director of evangelization and catechesis, told the Register that “we have to equip and inspire our people to joyfully live their faith in love and charity.”

“Just like the early Church, that witness is attractive to the world,” he said.

Mary Beth Coates emphasized that although scholarship, dynamic programming and service projects are important work for the Church, conversion ultimately rests on something much more immediate.

“It is only through authentic relationships that an encounter with Jesus Christ can be found.”


Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.


Mission Territory

The Top 10 Post-Christian Areas in the U.S. are:

1. Portland-Auburn, Maine (57%)

2. Boston, Massachusetts-Manchester, New Hampshire (56%)

3. Albany-Schenectady-Troy, New York (54%)

4. Providence, Rhode Island-New Bedford, Massachusetts (53%)

5. Burlington, Vermont-Plattsburgh, New York (53%)

6. Hartford-New Haven, Connecticut (52%)

7. New York, New York (51%)

8. San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, California (50%)

9. Seattle-Tacoma, Washington (50%)

10. Buffalo, New York (50%)

Source: The Barna Group