"While the Vatican now claims over 60 million believers in the United States, other trends -- declining enrollment for the priesthood, closing of entire parishes for lack of funds and members -- suggest this number may be exaggerated ."

Subject: Re: AANEWS #160 Part 1 of 2 To: All

From: Christopher Baker Date: 9/18/96 14:25:34

A M E R I C A N A T H E I S T S ............... http://www.atheists.org

Despite high-profile political activism by religious groups across the political spectrum, the American people continue to abandon denominations in record numbers, according to yet another survey.

A study by Barna Research Group of California shows that church attendance has been slipping steadily for five years, and now sunk to its lowest level in two decades. 37% of adults 18 or over who were polled said that they attended church; the reported figure in 1991 stood at 49%. The Barna study noted "Increasingly, we are seeing Christian churches lose entire segments of the population; men, singles, empty nesters...and people who were raised in mainline Protestant churches."

But the news gets worse for religious leaders, at least according to university researcher Penny Long Marler, who told Newhouse News Service that "actual church attendance is only about half of that indicated by telephone polls." That would place the real number of churchgoers closer to only about 19% of the population.

The Barna research also suggests that, in Marler's words, "Clearly something has been fishy about the (church attendance) polling." The biggest culprit may be the Gallup organization, which for years has released polls showing that church attendance was remaining steady. But Greg Carrison of Newhouse writes: "With the increasing population, a steady 43% church attendance should have resulted in a massive influx of people for the nation's churches." Marler notes glibly "That's clearly not been the case." Another Barna investigator, Dave Kinnaman, suggested that the 1991 peak figure involved several factors, including the Gulf War, worries about the economy and even the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

"These types of issues formed a climate conducive to church attendance," Kinnaman said. He also cited the popularity of "mega- churches" which boast huge denominations and provide a "seeker sensitive" environment complete with day-care, bowling leagues, personal counselling and other consumer services. Kinnaman added that "even that model may have lost some of its novelty appeal."

Researchers agree that there has been a substantial erosion of support for traditional, institutional religions.

What's going on?

One indication may be found in the fact that for decades, religious denominations have inflated their membership figures. In her book Freedom Under Siege, Madalyn O'Hair chronicled the history of how church membership in the United States was measured. She added that in 1974, when her book was first published, "there are more than 77 million Americans who are not church members and who have never gone to any church, anywhere, at any time.

Religious leaders call these people 'the unchurched.' In total, there are about 112.3 million Americans who currently do not attend church at all." Surveys attempting to gauge church attendance have proven to be notoriously unreliable at times. O'Hair notes the first attempt in 1906 by the Bureau of the Census, saying that the agency "...began to encounter problems. There was a lack of accurate and complete lists, since churches that had become dead of dormant were still carried on the rolls..."

Many churches, including the Roman Catholic religion, base membership figures on questionable statistics such as baptismal records. While the Vatican now claims over 60 million believers in the United States, other trends -- declining enrollment for the priesthood, closing of entire parishes for lack of funds and members -- suggest this number may be exaggerated . O'Hair noted that "Churches continue to list among their memberships more people than could possibly be accommodated in the church buildings."

While traditional, organized religion seems to be faced with an eroding support base, that does not mean that the culture is awash in secularism and the acceptance of Reason. So-called "new religions", including cultish spiritual groups, are reportedly enjoying a comeback on university campuses.

The Christian Science Monitor recently noted that "The move toward religion on college campuses is broad-based and includes everything from Judaism to New Age to Buddhism..."

Observers note that this trend emphasizes "spirituality" rather than institutionalized religious belief and ritual. There are also considerable social, economic and cultural factors which can still stimulate religious interest and participation. They include:

* The creation of a "religious marketplace" where "spiritually hungry" consumers pick-and-choose belief systems less on doctrinal authority than on a sense of "what right for them."

* A growth in religion based partially on ethnic or political identity. The Monitor pointed to Cornell University which "offered its first major in religious studies three years ago and has seen a growing number of ethnic religious groups set up on campus." Islam is perhaps the obvious manifestation in this trend, appealing to growing numbers of blacks. Mainstream Christian black religious leaders see themselves in a growing, problematic relationship with often more militant Muslim groups, including Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.

* Interest in pseudo-science and crank "spirituality" or "eastern religions" may be a surrogate for more traditional religious belief. Considerable numbers of Americans believe in the existence of devils, angels and UFO's; often, those beliefs reflect a hodge-podge of new age tenets and orthodox religion.

* "Basically this generation is Biblically illiterate," one campus minister told The Monitor.

* A quest for "spirituality" has become intertwined with other cultural developments, including personal searches for identity, self- actualization and fulfillment. Twelve step, "recovery" and self-help movements have become increasingly religious or "spiritual."

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