Understanding the PEW religious typology

September 28th, 2018

Heartbursts: Churches Empathizing with Cultures is a regular column helping leaders plan, implement, and evaluate credible and relevant ministries based on cultural trends.

The new PEW religious typology is a breath of fresh air. I urge everyone to read it, and compare it with the MissionInsite Quadrennium Report which asked many of the same questions.

Sociological studies of religion in America have long suffered from outdated typologies using traditional religious categories (e.g. Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, etc.) The old method always misrepresented the reality of religious participation because, quite frankly, too many people lied (or at least mightily stretched the truth). Surveys depend on self-identification. But many respondents claim to be something, or believe something, or behave in some way, when they really don’t. It may be because they feel guilty, or they are pretending to live up to the expectations of parents or grandparents. In the present climate of religious polarization, it may be because they are afraid of peer group judgement and are desperate to fit in.

When it comes to religion, people often deceive themselves. Many say they believe in God, when in fact they don’t. Conversely, many say they do not believe in God, when in fact they do. And they may hide these deeper convictions from themselves because it might make them depressed or turn their world upside down. When surveys used traditional organizational or doctrinal categories, it was too easy for respondents to hide the truth; and also too easy for researchers to misinterpret the data.

The new PEW typology is a big step toward reality. It tries to separate the highly religious, non-religious, and those in-between by using seven categories.

According to PEW, the “Highly Religious” represent about 39% of the public. In my recent book Sideline Church, these would mainly fall under my category of the Culturally Righteous.

  • Sunday Stalwarts: Actively involved in their faith and engaged in their congregations;
  • God-and-Country Believers: Socio-political conservatives irregular in church, privately religious, blurring the boundaries between Christian faith and traditional American values;
  • Diversely Devout: Traditionally religious, but eclectic in spirituality, mixing Christian beliefs with other religious and secular ideas and ideals.
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The “Somewhat Religious” represent about 32% of the public. These would mainly fall under my category of the Culturally Passive.

  • Relaxed Religious: Religion is tangential, with occasional church participation, and it is not necessary to believe in God to live a moral lifestyle.
  • Spiritually Awake: Reject traditional religion, but look for God and subscribe to New Age beliefs.

The “Non-Religious” represent about 29% of the public. These would mainly fall under my category of the Culturally Eclectic:

  • Religion Resistors: Socio-Political liberals who believe organized religion does more harm than good, but that God is out there somewhere if we can just get beyond the BS to find him or her, it or them.
  • Solidly Secular: Virtually no religious beliefs. The worlds is what it seems, and nothing more.

The PEW research tends to confirm my additional identification of extreme right and left factions that I call the Conservative Cultural Wedge and Liberal Cultural Eclectic.

The new PEW typology is a better way to understand the nuances of religion, spirituality, and secularity that have made religion in America more complicated… and which are sidelining traditional religious organizations from cultural relevance. PEW descriptions are reminiscent of a typology I introduced in 2006 (Talisman: Global Positioning for the Soul). In that book I tried to describe the “legion of the lapsed” using five types:

  • The Spiritual Dilettantes
  • The Flaky Fringe
  • The Rationally Reserved
  • The Seriously Experimenting
  • The Radically Committed

Note that in this earlier typology I left out any particular reference to atheism or pure secularity, because both in theory and practice I don’t believe these categories actually exist. Atheism and secularism are as much of a “radical commitment” as any other religious conviction about Ultimate Concern.

The PEW report deserves serious study, but there are several takeaways that invite deeper reflection… and perhaps more reality-testing.

There are more evangelicals among the Relaxed Religious than among the Spiritually Awake (25% vs. 16%), and more religious “nones” among the Spiritually Awake than among the Relaxed Religious (30% vs. 17%). This challenges both the confidence of evangelical leaders about their influence on their conservative constituencies, and also the assumptions of mainstream leaders about the “boogeyman” of fundamentalism. Allegiance to an evangelical church does not presume any particular spiritual passion. It also challenges the despair or fear of mainstream church leaders about the “boogeyman” of advancing secularism.

Outside of the Sunday Stalwarts, relatively few Americans – even those who otherwise hold strong religious beliefs – frequently attend religious services or read scripture. About eight-in-ten Sunday Stalwarts attend religious services at least once a week – three times greater than the share of frequent attenders among God-and-Country Believers, and roughly seven times larger than the proportion of the Diversely Devout who are as observant. What does this mean?

For one thing, local and regional church leaders grossly exaggerate commitment to regular worship attendance even among those who are highly committed to the church. Ask yourselves: Why is our worship turning away even those who are predisposed to like the church?

For another thing, conservative evangelical leaders exaggerate the influence of their pulpits on religious beliefs and moral principles. Ask yourselves: Why are conservative evangelicals paying more and more attention to AM radio talk shows and television gurus than our sermons?

And finally, the more devout a person becomes, the more likely they are to distance themselves from regular church attendance. Ask yourselves: Why do people have to leave the church in order to feel closer to God?

New Age beliefs are common, even among Americans who are highly religious in traditional ways. For example, about three-in-ten Sunday Stalwarts believe in psychics, and a similar share say that spiritual energy can be located in physical objects such as mountains, trees and crystals. Smaller shares believe in reincarnation and astrology. Overall, half of Sunday Stalwarts and God-and-Country Believers and nearly all of the Diversely Devout affirm at least one of these four New Age beliefs.

This means that the relevance of Christian doctrine and Biblical literacy is declining even among regular church members. Half of all “highly religious” people include beliefs in animism, spiritualism, reincarnation, or astrology! Preachers might think about that when they next look out at the congregation from the raised podium of the pulpit and exposit the Bible. Certainly publishers have already wakened to this reality. Just pay attention to the themes of books and articles on religion in both the academic and professional sectors.

Indeed, most Religion Resisters believe in a higher power or spiritual force – albeit one that does not resemble the God of the Bible (87%). And one of the defining characteristics of the Religion Resisters is that they almost unanimously (98%) say spiritual energy can be located in physical objects; hardly any of the Solidly Secular believe this. This is not just a rejection of traditional sources of meaning and truth. It is an affirmation that meaning and truth are more likely revealed through talismans (objects, images, and sound-bites) rather than words (liturgies, sermons, and curricula). The major difference between Religion Resistors and Solidly Secular is not just belief in God, but the inability to see or experience any transcendent meaning in the objects, relationships, and events around them. The former are angry at “religion” for judging and hampering their spiritual journeys;  the latter are indifferent to the church as just another eccentric habit that will (hopefully) soon go away.

The PEW report also highlights interesting demographic contrasts between the cultural right (Culturally Righteous) and the cultural left (Culturally Ambivalent). Among the “Highly Religious,” (Sunday Stalwarts and God-and-Country) believers tend to be female, white, older, and Republican. But nearly half of the Diversely Devout are Hispanic, black, or some other racial or ethnic background — and they tend to be poor. At the opposite extreme of the “Non-Religious”, both Religion Resistors and Solidly Secular tend to be gender neutral, younger, better educated, Democrat… and affluent.

This helps us understand why the cultural right and cultural left are so polarized today that dialogue is nearly impossible. Two ships passing in the night, they tend to read different books, watch different television programs, and get the news from different sources. It also helps us see that the key to future dialogue and reconciliation does not lie with white people of Western European descent. Reconciliation lies with people of color and increasing cultural diversity. The more we ignore or reject blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants in general, the longer we will be divided into hostile camps.

The new PEW typology was created by cluster analysis (similar to lifestyle segment analysis). It is a statistical technique that identifies homogeneous groups. PEW analysis is based on sixteen questions about religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, the value of religion, and other sources of meaning. Lifestyle analysis identifies portraits based on shared behavior patterns based to the digital footprint left by every person in the course of daily living. A key sentence in the PEW report, however, is that in some ways, cluster analysis is as much art as science. I find that church leaders are often demanding certainties, when they need to explore tendencies.

I hope you see that there is a convergence of opinion happening. There are plenty of distinct perspectives between PEW typological research, MissionInsite research, and my own writing, but you can see a pattern of shifting paradigms about religion and spirituality, clergy and spiritual leadership, faith and culture. It’s time for clergy to stop reading literature from two decades ago and catch up to contemporary insights. It’s time for clergy to set the sermon aside and listen to the public. 

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