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July 27, 2010

Sociologist Debunks Myths on U.S. Christianity

By Lillian Kwon
July 26 2010
Christian Post

Things aren't as bad in American Christianity as many say it is, according to one sociologist.

Christianity isn't on the brink of extinction, divorce rates of Christians aren't equal to that of non-Christians and churches are not losing young people – at least not to the extent that some fear.

That isn't to say there aren't any problems in the church. But Bradley R. E. Wright wants all the facts to be laid out before any judgment calls are made.

In his newly released book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites ... and Other Lies You've Been Told, Wright reveals that many of the commonly cited statistics regarding the state of U.S. Christianity or the behaviors of Christians are incomplete and inaccurate.

A lot of the data – especially the kind that get media coverage – are negatively slanted and paint a bleak picture of Christians and the church. Wright is concerned that the onslaught of inaccurate bad news could distract from what really is bad news and could demotivate Christians from being active Christ followers and from inviting others to join.

Wright, 47, is associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. He formerly studied crime and homelessness but switched his focus to American Christianity after receiving tenure.

"I wanted to work more merging my faith and my profession," he said in an interview with The Christian Post.

Raised in the Catholic Church, he became a born-again Christian in high school and is now part of an evangelical community.

His journey of discovering the real state of U.S. Christianity began when he had doubts about the popularly cited divorce statistic.

"We're all familiar with the idea that Christians have divorce rates as high, if not higher, than non-Christians," he explained in the interview. "I heard that for years but as I thought about it, it just didn't make sense."

He and his wife had received so much support from pastors, small group members, and the church as a whole that he could not understand how that couldn't make a difference on marriages.

After analyzing five different sets of data, he found that Christians actually have lower divorce rates. His analysis can be found on his blog,

"[People] found that gratifying to sort of bust that myth as it were," he commented.

In his book, he presents data from the General Social Survey, which he describes as "the Cadillac of national studies" that has collected data since 1972. The divorce rate among the religiously unaffiliated is 50 percent while that of mainline Protestants, evangelicals and Catholics is 41 percent, 46 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

The statistics are more positive when it comes to active churchgoers. Only 38 percent of evangelicals who attend church weekly have been divorced, compared to 60 percent of evangelicals who never attend.


Perhaps the most unhelpful perception Christians have about Christianity is that it's on the brink of extinction or that in a decade or two "we'll all be huddled in basements or something," Wright said.

"That's a problem because basically if we’re in the Titanic and we've already hit an iceberg, why would we want to invite anyone to join us? Why would we want to devote ourselves to it?" he posed. "Basically, if you have a sinking ship, you don’t invite people to it, you jump off and get away. And so I would say it’s perhaps the most harmful myth that Christians believe about ourselves."

Mainline Protestantism has indeed decreased dramatically from over 30 percent of the population in 1970 to less than 15 percent and the number of Americans not affiliated with a religion has doubled within that same time frame. But the percentage of evangelical Christians has grown to 25 percent and Catholics and black Protestants have remained stable in their representation.

The United States "is still very much a country of Christians" with three out of four Americans affiliating themselves with Christianity, Wright wrote.

Even among the unaffiliated, it turns out many of them are religious.

Thought they rarely attend religious services, more than half (56 percent) of them believe in God and another 22 percent believe in a higher power. Fifty-five percent believe that the Bible is either the literal or inspired Word of God and 49 percent pray daily or weekly.

Overall, over 90 percent of Americans have believed and continue to believe in some form of God.

Young people leaving?

The exodus of young people from the church has been a major concern. Popular speakers, including apologist Josh McDowell, have frequently stated that some two-thirds of the younger generation was leaving the Christian faith and that unless something was done now Christianity wouldn't survive another decade.

The popularly cited statistic is that only four percent of young Americans will be Bible-believing Christians as adults.

Wright found that the four percent figure came from an informal survey a seminary professor did 10 years ago. He interviewed 211 young people in three states.

"In terms of quality, this statistic is about as valid as someone putting a survey question on their Facebook page and then having their friends and acquaintances answer it," Wright wrote in his book. "There's nothing wrong with doing it, it's just not very trustworthy."

Yet Christian speakers and youth leaders have organized conferences and developed resources around such statistics.

"My sense is that they're using these statistics with the best intentions, that their goal is to try to save the church from what they perceive to be a terrible problem and imminent disaster," Wright noted. "The expression I use is 'scary statistics are useful,' that it helps us to create audiences and create a need for our message."

Wright went further to compare today's generation of young people to previous generations.

He pointed out that since the 1970s, between 20 and 25 percent of young people have been affiliated with evangelical Christianity. Currently, 22 percent of young adults affiliate with evangelical churches, down from 25 percent in the 1990s, but up from 21 percent in the 1970s.

Though the percentage of young people who are religiously unaffiliated increased to 25 percent over the past couple of decades, the increase in the unaffiliated is seen across all age groups. In fact, the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated almost tripled among people in their thirties to sixties.

Today's evangelical youth were also found to be more committed and more active than young Christians of previous generations.

In the 1970s, only about one-third of young evangelicals viewed themselves as "strong evangelicals" compared to 50 percent today. About half prayed daily in the 1980s but over two-thirds do so today. Church attendance also increased from about 35 percent in the 1970s and 1980s to over 40 percent now among young evangelicals.

Also, young people who leave organized religion often rejoin when they grow older and start families of their own, Wright noted. Citing the General Social Survey, the sociologist revealed that with previous generations – those born in the 1910s up until the 1980s – evangelical involvement increased with age. Only 19 percent of those born in the 1930s and 1940s identified as evangelicals when they were in their twenties. By the time they were in their seventies, 30 percent were evangelicals.

Though he can't make any predictions, Wright says he doesn't see evidence in the data "of a cataclysmic loss of young people."

Things are going well

When Wright set out to analyze data for a more accurate look at Christianity, he was expecting at least half of the data – on church growth, beliefs, participation, morals, how Christians treat others and how others view Christians – to be negative. But surprisingly, much of it was positive.

"I think it’s more accurate to have a more positive perception of Christians. In many ways, things are going well," he said.

But Wright doesn't want to ignore the bad news.

Even though the divorce rate among evangelicals is lower than reported, it has still doubled over the last three to four decades. Sexual promiscuity and porn viewing may be lowest among regular evangelical church attenders compared to other groups, but still many are struggling. And though evangelical Christians score high when it comes to selfless caring for others and accepting others even when others do things they think are wrong, their attitudes toward minorities and gays are dismaying, Wright said.

Wright has gained a much more positive outlook on U.S. Christianity after finishing his book, but he acknowledged that there are things Christians need to work on.

"But that’s part of the value of data is that it tells us where the real problems are," he said. "If we think everything’s a problem, then in a sense nothing’s a problem because it almost becomes white noise."