New study: Increasing number of Americans consider Christianity “to be extremist”

"The perception that the Christian faith is extreme," says Barna Group, "is now firmly entrenched among the nation’s non-Christians."

I’m in the final stretch of completing this book, which I should have finished weeks (or months!) ago. And I have a number of things I plan to post about as soon as possible. But this bit of news from the Barna Group grapt aholt of me (that’s a German phrase, by way of Montana):

Society is undergoing a change of mind about the way religion and people of faith intersect with public life. That is, there are intensifying perceptions that faith is at the root of a vast number of societal ills.

Though it remains the nation’s most dominant religion, Christianity faces significant headwind in the court of public opinion. The decades-old trend that Christianity is irrelevant is increasingly giving way to the notion that Christianity is bad for society.

A new major study conducted by Barna Group, and explored in the new book Good Faith, co-authored by Barna president David Kinnaman, examines society’s current perceptions of faith and Christianity. In sum, faith and religion and Christianity are viewed by millions of adults to be extremist.

Here are five facts that explain the emerging reality:

1. Adults and especially non-believers are concerned about religious extremism.

In the wake of religiously motivated terrorism—like the recent incidents in San Bernardino and Paris—it is no wonder that a backlash against extremism is reaching a boiling point. Currently, a strong majority of adults believe “being religiously extreme is a threat to society.” Three-quarters of all Americans—and nine out of ten Americans with no faith affiliation—agree with this statement.

2. Nearly half of non-religious adults perceive Christianity to be extremist.

The perception that the Christian faith is extreme is now firmly entrenched among the nation’s non-Christians. A full forty-five percent of atheists, agnostics, and religiously unaffiliated in America agree with the statement “Christianity is extremist.” Almost as troubling is the fact that only 14 percent of atheists and agnostics strongly disagree that Christianity is extremist. The remaining four in ten (41%) disagree only somewhat. So even non-Christians who are reluctant to fully label Christianity as extremist, still harbor some hesitations and negative perceptions toward the religion.

3. The range of what constitutes extremism is broad, ranging from behaviors that are almost universally condemned to more narrowly defined extremism.

What actions and beliefs, exactly, come to mind when people think about religious extremism?

You can read the rest on the Barna Group site, but suffice to say, it’s rather interesting even if not surprising. There seems to be plenty of cognitive dissonance going on; for instance, the study finds that 64% of adults think that demonstrating outside an “organization they find immoral” is “extreme”. Yet the history of the United States overflows with famous demonstrations and protests; entire eras are aligned with protests against (take your pick) wars, political stances, actions by this or that company or institution, universities and colleges, and much more. Of course, I’m sure many of those who think along those lines are not focused on demonstrating against a war or Big Agriculture, but on demonstrations in front of abortion mills.

Some 24% of adults think it is “extreme” to “wait until marriage to have sex”. It wasn’t too long ago (okay, I’m dating myself) that waiting until marriage was considered a norm; at the very least, few people thought it was strange to “save yourself” for marriage. Apparently, hooking up is closely correlated to dumbing down (or, more likely, dumbing down has opened the door further for hooking up). Finally, 60% of adults (the number is 83% among atheist and agnostics) think it is “extreme” to “attempt to convert others to their faith”. The big question, I suppose, is what “attempt to convert” means. While some Christian groups are more direct or even “in your face” than others with evangelistic methods, few Catholics are known for being aggressive and combative in trying to witness to others. I suspect that many of those asked would consider any mention of one’s Christian faith in a conversation to be extreme; my experience is that more and more people want to be buffered from any sort of talk about ultimate questions.

It’s so much easier to discuss the Oscars; however, I don’t watch the Oscars, as I find it to be extremely dull, boring, and, on occasion, offensive. Which probably means I’m an extremist.

What do you think of the study? Any surprises? Why or why not?

Some more info, courtesy of Barna:

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.