Pew and the Three American Worldviews

Having offered some cautions about over-interpreting the findings of the latest Pew religion survey, let me throw that caution to the wind and offer a quick interpretation myself. A few times in the past — this old column, this recent post — I’ve played with the idea that we have three major worldviews sharing space in American culture, which you might label biblical, spiritual and secular respectively. (The “spiritual” category overlaps substantially with the “nation of heretics” described in my last book.) Here’s how I tried to sketch this division — in the context of the Christmas story, hence the references — two years back:

Many Americans still … accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.

But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.

This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.

Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

Inevitably, these labels are overbroad, they don’t work for many churches, groups and individuals, and gray areas abound. Most Americans (of varying levels of religious devotion) and many religious institutions (of varying theologies) straddle the biblical/spiritual dichotomy, or would fall on one side of the other depending on who sets up the rubrics. And then no matter where you draw the lines, you’ll end up with groups that seem like they need to be parsed further — with a “biblical” category that includes believers who hold the Koran or the Book of Mormon sacred; with a “spiritual” category that includes Republican-voting Osteen readers and New Age-y liberals alike; with a “secular” category that includes Dawkins-reading militant atheists, Jewish agnostics who send their kids to Hebrew school, and working class guys who never had much interest in church and stopped going after their divorce.

Yet I still think that at the big picture level, this division is a useful heuristic … and one that can be applied to the new Pew data in interesting ways. Basically, the biggest thing we’re seeing happening, visible in those declining religious affiliation numbers and the steady rise of the “nones,” is that part of what I’m calling the vast “spiritual” middle of American life is drifting in a more secular direction. I say drifting because disaffiliation is not enough to define a person as secular, and indeed one of the striking things about the unaffiliated is how many of them still have religious habits — prayer, belief in God or an afterlife, etc. — and how few explicitly self-identify as atheists. You can be a “none,” in other words, and belong more to the metaphysically-minded American middle than to the post-religious end of the spectrum.

But the tug toward the fully secular is presumably stronger once institutional bonds are left behind, and on the evidence of the Pew numbers that tug seems to be having an effect. A quarter of the “nones” called themselves atheists or agnostics in 2007, now (out of a larger total population) almost a third do, and as my colleague David Leonhardt points out you can also see an increase in religious indifference, people declining to call themselves atheists but describing spiritual concerns as simply unimportant, within the nonaffiliated population. So in the gray area where the spiritual meets the secularized, secularism seems to be gaining ground.

Then what about the gray area on the other side, where the “biblical” end of the spectrum meets the Oprah-Osteen middle? Here things are more complicated. As I noted in my last post, you don’t see a clear trend toward declining churchgoing over the last ten years, which could suggest that most of the ongoing action is among the weakly-attached, and the landscape has stabilized in the zone of stronger attachment and belief. (This is especially plausible if you suspect that the Pew data showing steep Catholic decline is an outlier.)

But if you look at evangelical Christianity, the demographic for which the “biblical” label fits particularly well, you do see an interesting churn: The evangelical population is holding steady or increasing slightly in the Pew data (a fact that evangelicals have not been shy in pointing out), but evangelical denominations (the Southern Baptists, most notably) are plateau-ing and losing ground while non-denominational churches gain instead.

So in that sense evangelicalism is not a complete exception to the pattern of institutional weakening that’s more visible in the Mainline and somewhat visible in Catholicism. And for the future, a lot depends on the direction the growing “nondenominational” evangelicalism ends up taking. Are these newer independent churches “indistinguishable … in theology and ecclesiology” from conservative denominations, as Joe Carter suggests, and therefore just an extension of evangelical Christianity as it currently exists? Or might some of them be trending, absent denominational and confessional ties, in the direction of an Osteen-ish prosperity theology or a Rob Bell Oprahism or something else that starts out light on doctrine and “seeker-sensitive” and ends up doctrine-free, still “biblical” in name but “spiritual” in content?

If it’s the former, then what Pew is showing really is mostly just movement on the spiritual-to-secular end of the religious spectrum, which might polarize the country further but which isn’t reshaping the landscape of regular practice and belief. But in the latter scenario, where the modest drift away from evangelical denominations is a harbinger of a drift away from evangelical theology and orthodoxy, then the shift Pew is showing might be bigger — more of a full-spectrum change, in which the entire country’s religious norms are swinging even further away from the traditional expressions of Christian faith.