April 25th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Baseline Exposure to Second-Hand Christianity

I know most of you have at least glanced at this by now, because I let it sit and compost in my "to write about" bookmarks folder for too long: Geitner Simmons, "Mapping Religion in America." Someone took the year 2000 Glenmary Research Center county-by-county data, a survey of churches in the phone book asking each of them how many members they had then totaled up by county, against the 2000 US Census count of how many people there were in each county, produced a series of graphs. The main one shows what percentage of Americans, in each county of the union, are listed as a member of some church listed in the phone book. The follow-up graphs provide the same information by denomination, with separate break-out graphs for Jewish synagogue members and Islamic mosque members. You probably glanced at the resulting maps, but did you study them? I've put hours into pouring over them, and like Simmons himself, I've become fascinated with them.

Consider the two main graphs:

The left-hand graph shows what percentage of each county is listed as members of any church in the phone book. The right-hand graph shows which denomination or religion in each county has the highest percentage of the county's membership. It's worth clicking on the one on the right and zooming in, which is something that you almost certainly didn't do. You see, at higher resolution than they even appeared in the original article, there's one more map key result that's fascinating, and that's that counties in which listed membership in the churches of one single denomination exceed 50% of the census count for that county have a small black dot.

I always thought of the Bible Belt as something that ran east to west, from about Atlanta to Salt Lake City, closely paralleling Interstate 70. But if you judge by actual church membership, the Bible Belt looks more like Bible Suspenders, a pair of north/south lines closely paralleling the east and west sides of the Rocky Mountains. If you live along the border between the Dakotas and Minnesota, 50% or more of the people living in your counties are members of Lutheran churches. If you live in Utah, unsurprisingly, 50% or more of your neighbors are listed as members of Mormon churches. If you live in north central Texas, 50% or more of your neighbors are listed in the church membership directories of Baptist churches. If you live in south central Texas, 50% or more of your neighbors are on the parish rolls of some Catholic church. And other than a smattering of dots along both sides of the lower Mississippi River valley, counties where one denomination of Christianity has enrolled 50% or more of the county's total population are pretty scarce. I suppose I should routinely thank the gods that I don't live in one of the counties on that map with a little black dot, or else my involuntary exposure to toxic levels of second-hand Christianity would be even worse than it is.

(No, there are no counties where 50% or more have enrolled in any one non-Christian religion's churches, temples, mosques, or synagogues. There are two counties in the New York City metro area that rise to 30%ish Jewish, but even in those counties, they're outnumbered by Christians. The highest-density Muslim counties in America rise no higher than 10%.)

In light of that, am I wrong about pervasive exposure to second-hand Christianity in America? No. Because, as baffling as this may be to some of you and as contrary as it is to the self-image of some of you, the vast majority of Christians only regularly attend church, are only listed as members of any one church, for only two stretches of only a relatively few years in a row out of their entire life. Survey after survey has shown that church attendance in America is very tightly statistically coupled to the percentage of the population who have children between the ages of roughly 4 and 13. Your average American Christian family (which is nearly all of them) doesn't actually join a church until their first child turns 4. They then attend, approximately weekly, until their youngest child turns 13 or so; very rapidly thereafter, they nearly all drop out. A few of them, for lack of anything better to do with their time, return after retirement, but not in any huge numbers. No, in terms of how the vast majority of Christians actually use churches, they attend weekly from age 4 to 13, and when they have children aged 4 to 13; other than that, they attend perhaps 2 or 3 times per year, picking churches almost at random for weddings and funerals, and for many but by no means a majority of them also for Easter.

Nonetheless, percentages in excess of 75% and as high as the mid 90s% agree with such Christian doctrines as that the entire universe including Earth and all life thereon was created by God in 6 days, that God ordained the 10 Commandments as law, that most of mankind was once wiped out by a world-wide flood in which God picked out the only surviving family, that the Jews were God's chosen people until they betrayed Christ, that Jesus Christ (who was born on December 25th in a stable in modern-day Israel) was God's only son, that Jesus Christ was crucified and rose again for the forgiveness of human sins, that after Jesus' resurrection he commanded that people worship him by attending church on Sunday, that only Christians who've recited their denomination's special magical prayer and then been baptized in Jesus' name (whatever that means to them) are good people who can be trusted, that America has a special destiny as God's new chosen people, that the world as we know it will end on some future Judgment Day after a nuclear war that the US enters on behalf of Israel, that members of their denomination and maybe one or two others go to heaven as soon as they die, that except for children too young to know better everybody else spends all of eternity from when they die onwards being tortured, that God commands Christians to tell everybody all these things at every opportunity, and that it is especially important for parents to take their younger children to Sunday School to learn these things.

(I leave it as an exercise for the reader how many of those doctrines are not found in and how many are explicitly contradicted by the seldom-read and mostly no-longer preached intact Christian Bible.)