If there is one thing we know about religion, it is that the United States is far more religious than any European country. 80 percent of us tell pollsters we’re “Christian,” and over 90% of us tell them we believe in God; 40% are regular church-goers. Megachurches may look like metastasized malls, and their message may often be hyped-up watered-down feel-good, but the crowd size says it’s working well enough to draw many thousands of people a week. As a nation, we trust in God – it even says so on our money.
However, when you start asking how many people actually attend church, it’s a much different picture. Researchers counting actual church attendance in more than 300,000 Christian congregations totaled 52 million people, or 17.7 percent of the American population in 2004. About 82% do not attend church regularly. The fastest growing faith groups in the country are atheists and nonbelievers. In just the eleven years from 1990 to 2001, they more than doubled, from 14 million to 29 million, from 8% of the country to 14 percent. There are more than twice as many nonbelievers and atheists as there are evangelicals. Since it’s hard to believe everyone would have the nerve to tell a pollster they were an atheist or nonbeliever, the real figures are almost certainly higher. We don’t read this in the media because there are no savvy or powerful groups pushing the story.
In the Southern Baptist Church, baptisms of people in the eighteen to thirty-four age group fell 40 percent, from 100,000 in 1980 to 60,000 in 2005. Most of these data come from evangelicals and others “inside” religion, not from Christian-haters. From 2000 to 2005, church attendance declined in all fifty states, and the states with the biggest decline were in the New England region: a traditional bastion of church-going. When asked to rate eleven groups in terms of respect, non-Christians rated evangelicals tenth. Only prostitutes ranked lower. When religion scholars wave these data off by saying (correctly) that churches are always being born and dying, they’re failing to mention that these times of death and resurrection are occurring within the much deeper fact that religion in America has been in steady decline since the 1800s. America churches have not kept up with population growth in over a century. Current Critiques of Religion Religion’s protective halo has been dissolved by the acids of time and moral scandals around sexual hypocrisy and abuse. Critics are rushing to pile on churches the way predators take out the weakest members of the herd. We’re no longer surprised to read broad and blunt assessments like these: 1. “There’s no longer evidence for a need of God, even less of Christ. The so-called traditional churches look like they are dying.” 2. “Open heartedness, compassion — it’s a capacity from birth. It must be possible to increase that. The majority of the 6 billion people [on Earth], I think, you can count as non-believers. We must find ways and means for promotion of these values” among these non-believers. 3. “A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us. The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western [culture]…. Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society. The post-Christian narrative … is based on an understanding of history that presumes a less tolerant past and a more tolerant future, with the present as an important transitional step.” 4. “Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making.” 5. “Both papal infallibility and biblical inerrancy require widespread and unchallenged ignorance to sustain their claims to power. Both are doomed as viable alternatives for the long- range future of anyone.” 6. “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. Democracy requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.” Most readers can guess these statements came from some of the “new atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher and lesser-known enemies of religion.
But no. These six quotations come from, in order, Pope Benedict XVI, the Dalai Lama, Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. (President of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY – one of the world’s largest), religion scholar and former nun Karen Armstrong, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, and President Barack Obama. The background against which religion is viewed has changed. Prominent people on the inside of religion have acknowledged what pundits won’t notice: our religions are becoming – and for growing numbers have already become – increasingly irrelevant to our lives. This is true of both supernatural religions promising eternal life elsewhere and later, megachurch preachers that downplay the supernatural afterlives in favor of their here-and-now prosperity gospel, and liberal religions seeking wisdom for living here and now (or at least a hideout where they can find like-minded people).
Some may wish we could return to an imaginary yesteryear when everyone who mattered believed the same thing, and their beliefs held our world together, but we know it won’t happen. We can’t unlearn the industrial and scientific revolutions any more than we could wish away evolution, a 4-1/2 billion-year-old Earth, and a nearly fourteen billion year old universe. Nor can we unlearn what we have learned about mythology, the history of religions, and the broad theistic, polytheistic and non-theistic array of healthy beliefs serving people in the worldwide smorgasbord. Religious beliefs are matters of personal taste, not wildly incongruent factual claims. Today’s greatest awakening seems to be among the “church alumni” who are leaving the churches in droves. American Christian churches lose six thousand members a day: more than 2 million people a year, while the U.S. population increases by 3.3 million a year. America and religion are heading in opposite directions. Within Roman Catholicism alone, nuns have been an endangered species for decades, and the ratio of congregants to priests gets larger each year. Nationwide, 1,200 priests retire or die each year, while only about 450 are ordained to take their place. We’re seldom told that all the Catholics in the U.S. represent just seven percent of the world’s Catholics. Catholicism has become a third world religion, and the gap between what professors and priests know, and what people in the pews hear, dwarfs the Grand Canyon. Even now, few Catholics are aware that in 1999, Pope John Paul II said that “heaven” was not a place, but a state of mind. That kind of candor, while admired by liberal theologians, is not likely to play well in the demographics of the Church’s Third World future — if it would even sit well for many who attend Catholic churches in the U.S.
Christmas and Easter, Christianity’s two highest holy days — both adopted from far older faiths — have morphed into high-profit days for merchants. Almost all the Christmas and Easter decorations — as well as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and the rest of our holidays — are put up and paid for by merchants, not churches. These decorations and ads for shoppers may best be seen as “bait” cast by merchants. Large chains like Wal-Mart can make a third of their annual revenue during the Christmas shopping season, where Santa Claus replaced Jesus long ago.
When religions can’t even attract people with promises of getting to live for millions or billions of years in a members-only heaven elsewhere and later, they are in dire straits. Think about it: if people actually believed they could live forever elsewhere and later, simply by following the teachings and beliefs of one of the 38,000 Christian sects in the world, church attendance would approach 100 percent, the pews filled with hopeful and desperate people. But as their behavior shows, they don’t believe the supernatural stories.
More than 60 years ago, theologian Rudolf Bultmann anticipated this. He noted that the passage of time had “demythologized” biblical religion, and asked what, if anything, a demythologized Christianity still offered to modern people. The continually decreasing number of people in churches suggests that if religion has a useful message, they aren’t hearing anything that makes them want to go to church. Almost all of these observations have come from “insiders” – people friendly to religion, not church-haters. To say the “evangelical nation” is falling, or the American churches are “in crisis” is like wondering if all the glaciers might be looking a bit smaller.
But Seriously: Homeland Security?
This is where theologians and religions could learn a lot from Homeland Security. Moving from a broad philosophical perspective to a clear down-to-earth factual situation that sheds light on the biggest problem in American religion today, here’s a real-world problem with clear parallels to religion: A local police officer radioed late one night to his dispatcher that he had just seen a state highway patrol officer’s car with a door open stopped along a highway. The officer said he was going to go back to make sure the patrolman was OK. That patrolman was lying in a ditch, barely alive, having been shot eight times with a rifle. The local police dispatcher decided to use plain English rather than code in broadcasting a call for help. Had she said “10-33,” her department’s code for “officer down,” it would have meant something very different to the Missouri Highway Patrol: “traffic backup.” Instead, every state trooper within miles responded, and the officer lived. Being able to communicate quickly and effectively in ordinary language can mean the difference between life and death – both literally and metaphorically. 9-11 and the Katrina disaster in New Orleans showed dramatically that different police and emergency units simply can’t communicate in those old-timey code languages, because different agencies use different codes. Federal officials from the department of Homeland Security are now requiring that police officers use plain talk rather than their “10-codes” when responding to a crisis involving multiple agencies.
The people who need to know what’s going on can’t communicate because they speak different dialects. If the matter is important, they must be able to say what they mean in ordinary language. So if federal Homeland Security officials have their way, the next time a police officer arrives on the scene, he’ll simply radio back “I understand” instead of “10-4.” When applied to the world of God-talk, the lessons from Homeland Security are revolutionary, crossing over the threshold to secular religion in ordinary language. In ecumenical or inter-religious discussions – or efforts to reach the tens of millions with no brand-name religion — theologians and preachers need to be able to explain what on earth they mean by words like God, Sin, Repentance, Salvation, Grace and the rest if they are to rescue the messages of their religion from jargonian captivity. A century or two ago, preachers could rely on most people accepting the supernatural world picture in which phrases like “He ascended to Heaven” were coherent. But that’s no longer true, when the majority of our planet’s six billion people are, as the Dalai Lama put it, “non-believers.” If it’s important that police and emergency services be able to communicate in plain talk, it is equally important in discussions of religion, ethics, moral courage, and character formation. Ordinary language includes the people that jargon excludes, and builds bridges rather than linguistic walls. Though it may seem rude to say so, god-talk is no more sacred than 10-4 talk. It’s merely the medium, not the message. When it no longer communicates life-giving messages to all those trying to reconnect with all the people seeking wisdom for living more authentically here and now rather than elsewhere and later, it needs to be translated into this-worldly ordinary language. Expecting theologians and preachers to speak in plain talk rather than Capitalized Words may be naive. But if they can’t, history may well see them as accomplices in the ongoing death of a Christianity that is relevant to this world.
 Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler, “How Many Americans Attend Worship Each Week? An Alternative Approach to Measurement”) in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44, no. 3 (September 2005): 307-322. Also see David T. Olson’s The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan, 2008), p. 23
 Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, p. 53.
 David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan, 2008), p. 37.
 Wicker, p. 143.
 Olson, pp. 144-145.
 Sydney Morning Herald, July 28, 2005 (http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/western-churches-a-dying-breed-pope/2005/07/28/1122143939067.html)
 A version of this speech appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 6, 2009.
 Quoted in “The End of Christian America,” by Jon Meacham, Newsweek magazine, April 13, 2009.
 From an interchange with biologist Richard Dawkins in the September 12, 2009 issue of The Wall Street Journal in the “Life & Style Essays.”
 Bishop John Shelby Spong in Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994, p. 99.)
 From Obama’s “Call to Renewal” address on May 28, 2006. The full address is at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/060628-call_to_renewal/
 Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation (HarperOne, 2008), p. ix.
 CBS Evening News, July 17, 2007
 July 21, 1999. Google pope 1999 heaven for dozens of sources and commentary.
 Christine Wicker, ibid.
 David T. Olson, ibid.
 See “10 codes going away?” in Police Link, December 13, 2009 by John Scheibe. http://policelink.monster.com/news/articles/128269-10-codes-going-away.
Davidson Loehr is author of the book