Last week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the first instalment of its "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey," based on its expansive and detailed polling of Americans about their religious affiliations and beliefs.
The surveyors interviewed 35,000 American adults in two languages, English and Spanish, about their institutional religious allegiances, beliefs, attitudes and practices.
Although the Canadian censuses include religious affiliation, since the 1950s U.S. census workers have been prohibited from asking questions about religion. Church statistics and other occasional social surveys have only inadequately made up for the lack of accurate demographic data. The "Religious Landscape Survey" fills an important void and is available to anybody who cares to download it from the Pew Forum's website.
According to the Pew survey, approximately 78 per cent of American adults still declare themselves "Christian," similar to the 77 per cent of Canadians in our last religion census of 2001, but the proportion of Protestants to Catholics varies considerably between the countries.
Among U.S. "Christians" 51.3 per cent are Protestants and 23.9 per cent are Roman Catholics, compared to approximately 29 per cent Protestants and 43 per cent Roman Catholics in Canada.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians more closely resemble the U.S. in this regard than the rest of Canada, for nearly 60 per cent of our province's population in 2001 were Protestants and 37 per cent were Roman Catholics.
While in the U.S. adherents of major non-Christian religions number 4.7 per cent, the Canadian non-Christian proportion in 2001 was slightly larger, with 6 per cent of the total population. In Newfoundland, however, only 0.2 per cent espouse non-Christian religions.
Of particular interest to me was the almost identical percentage of those who no longer affiliate with any particular religious group. The Pew survey found for the U.S. a total of 16.1 per cent religiously unaffiliated adults, while the 2001 Canadian census established that 16.2 per cent of Canadians fell in the no religion" category.
The trend toward greatest concentration of religiously unaffiliated people in the West of the U.S. also holds true for Canada, which has its highest concentration of the population professing no religion" in the Yukon (37 per cent), followed by British Columbia (35 per cent).
Belief in flux
The unaffiliated category, as in much of contemporary U.S. religion, is by no means fixed and homogeneous. While people currently drift three times more quickly out of specific religious affiliations into non-affiliation than they move the other way, of the 16.1 per cent unaffiliated American adults, only one-tenth call themselves atheists (1.6 per cent), while 2.4 per cent are agnostics and the majority, 12.1 per cent, call themselves "nothing in particular." The latter category can be further classified as unaffiliated secularists (6.3 per cent) and unaffiliated religious individuals (5.8 per cent).
Reginald Bibby, Canada's foremost religious demographer, had also found complexity in the makeup of his no religion category. In his book, "Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada" (2002), Bibby distinguished between "Nevers," people who never attend religious services; "Nones," people who do not claim any religious affiliation; and "Nots," atheists, who do not believe in God. He observed that despite the increasing number of "Nones," two in three persons in this category changed over time from being religiously unaffiliated to affiliation with a religious group, usually that of their parents.
As among the Pew survey's unaffiliated individuals, Bibby found that many people reporting no religion expressed, nevertheless, a belief in God. That one in four young adults between 18 and 29 in the Pew survey choose to call themselves religiously unaffiliated represents a particular challenge to established churches.
In another startling finding, the Pew report documented a high degree of religious change: 28 per cent of Americans, and 44 per cent of Protestants, have left the faith of their childhood and are, as adults, members of a different religious group. We do not have comparable statistics for Canada and Newfoundland, but religious change is not a recent phenomenon in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador.
While we might assume our historic religious profile to be relatively stable, already in the 18th century we hear repeated complaints by Anglican priests about adherents lost to Roman Catholic and Methodist competition. The Reverend Balfour wrote to his employer, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, from Harbour Grace in 1785: "Since the late toleration for the Roman Catholics, the spread of Popery has been prodigious ... the Church seems likely soon to have little footing in Newfoundland."
Not only religious neglect but also active competition by the Salvation Army and Pentecostals attracted many Methodists (since 1925 the United Church) and even Anglicans to their assemblies, especially in areas experiencing significant change, such as the then new industrial communities of Central and Western Newfoundland.
But the present situation is different in that religious authorities - whether experiential, as in the Salvation Army and among Pentecostals, or hierarchical and ministerial, as in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Churches - are radically undermined by a view of the world and a lifestyle and ethical posture that take their norms and directions increasingly from dynamic, global electronic communities and not from institutional religious leadership.
In the New York Times, David Brooks has analyzed the campaigns of the two leading Democratic contenders for the U.S. presidency, contrasting the decentralized, faith-inspiring, change-loving, grassroots-energizing leadership style of Barack Obama to the traditional, authoritarian, combative political appeal of Hillary Clinton.
What Brooks sees in Obama may apply to 21st-century religious leadership and authority as well as to the capacity of people for change. Many of those who have given Obama his electoral victories, according to Brooks, are people "who have grown up on Facebook, YouTube, open-source software and an array of decentralized networks," and are easily persuaded that "a spontaneous dynamic order could emerge from thousands of individual decisions."
Perhaps the present willingness to trade one religious loyalty for another one or even none emerges from a similar posture that accepts religious change readily and irrespective of traditional ties, ecclesiastical authorities and metaphysical sanctions.
Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone interested in the Pew Survey can access it at http://religions.pewforum.org/reports