Like many people, Bradley R. E. Wright read many of the stories about the church – claims that youth are leaving the Christian faith in record numbers, Christianity will die out in a generation and the divorce rate among Christians is as high as those of nonbelievers.
But as a sociology professor who studies religion and is familiar with the American Religious Identification Survey, General Social Survey, the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey and other data sets, Wright suspected many of these "soul-seizing factoids" were incomplete or inaccurate.
So he started a blog analyzing many of these claims and came to some surprising conclusions: the percentage of youth who attend church has held steady over the past 20 years, divorce rates of Christian couples are lower than those of nonbelievers and Christianity is not on the verge of collapse.
"This got me thinking about what are the other myths about Christians out there and are they true or not," said Wright, author of "Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You've Been Told." "The attitude I took toward this book is almost like the TV show 'MythBusters' where they take an idea and test it. Sometimes the myth pans out and sometimes it turns out they are not true."
In the book, Wright not only shatters many of these popular myths, but he also reveals why and how many of the commonly shared statistics aren't entirely true. He discusses the dynamics of how statistics are often misquoted as they get passed on and how even Christian leaders will pick statistics for their usefulness rather than for accuracy. And he highlights the problems caused for the church by the continuing emphasis on negatively slanted statistics.
"Amid the widespread, distorted, alarmist, and erroneous claims about American Christianity, it is always good to learn some basic, reliable facts," writes Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, in an endorsement of Wright's book. "Brad Wright pulls together a lot of good ones in the pages here to reconnect people to reality. Let us hope that the misinformed critics and alarmists pay attention."
One of the first questions Wright explores in the book is whether it's true that Christianity is on the verse of collapse because so many Christian youth are leaving the church. The concerns partially grew out of the American Religious Identification Survey in 2008 that found the percentage of American adults identified as Christians dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008. In the same period, those who have no religious preference, atheists or agnostics increased from 8 percent to 15 percent.
Despite this rise of the "unaffiliated," Wright noted 76 percent of Americans still consider themselves Christians and their numbers have increased from 122 million in 1970 to 173 million in 2008.
The other source of concern was a study that found six out of 10 of those in their 20s who had been involved with churches in their teen-age years had put Christianity on the shelf. This study and others prompted some Christian leaders to warn that this might be "the last Christian generation."
But even though today's young people are less likely to affiliate with Christianity than older people, Wright says that's been the case in every generation throughout the 20th century.
Currently, there are 80 million children in the United States under the age of 18. About two-thirds of them have been raised in Christian traditions. If the current adults are indeed the last Christian generation, about 50 million young people would have to leave the faith – a notion Wright says is absurd.
"In reality, in every generation, young people get more religious as they age," Wright says. "When you get married, when you have kids, when you start to hit those existential crises – what am I doing with my life – we often turn to God for that. That happened in your and my generation, it happened in our parents' generation and it happened in our grandparents' generation. It looks like it's happening with this generation. I find no evidence that this generation is substantially less religious than past generations. Now, let me give a caveat to that. In the last 20 years, American religions have seen a big increase in the number of people who say they have no religious affiliation. That's held true among young people. But it hasn't happened uniquely among the young. It's happened among all ages."
Furthermore, Wright says the General Social Survey shows the percentage of young adults who believe in God has exceeded 80 percent since 1990.
"On the positive side, the percentage of young people who attend church or who think that religion is important has remained mostly stable," Wright wrote. "Also, the percentage that affiliate with Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, and Black Protestantism are at or near 1970 levels. What I don't see in the data are evidence of a cataclysmic loss of young people. Have we lost the young? No. Sure, terrible things could happen in the future, but so could great thing."
Another popular criticism of Christians today is that only a small percentage shares their faith with others – ignoring the Great Commission. However, the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey found 52 percent of Evangelical Christians share their faith with others at least monthly, as do 55 percent of Black Protestants. Far fewer Catholics, Mainline Protestants and Orthodox Christians regularly share their faith at 21-26 percent. Wright says these rates have held steady over the past several decades.
"Now, does this mean they are out street preaching? Probably not, but they do talk with non-Christians about their beliefs," Wright says.
In recent years, media reports and studies have reported on the increasingly negative reputation of Christians, especially among young people. One study found 16- to 29-year-olds are more skeptical of and resistant to Christianity than were people of the same age a decade before. The study found a decade ago that the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity's role in society. But recently, however, just 16 percent of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a "good impression" of Christianity. These youth view Christians as hypocritical, too evangelistic, anti-gay, sheltered, political and judgmental.
Despite this "everyone hates us" message that is currently popular, Wright says a Times Mirror Poll from 1990 and Pew surveys from 1996 to 2007 show non-Christians' attitudes toward Evangelical Christians have actually become increasingly positive in recent years. In the 1990s, about 70 percent of the religiously unaffiliated had a negative opinion of Evangelical Christians, and now only about 40 percent do. In the 1990s, 50-60 percent of members of other religions thought negatively of Evangelicals, but now it's down to 35 percent.
In explaining these increasingly positive views of Evangelicals, Wright says the 1990s were the heyday of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, but now the figureheads of Evangelical Christianity are much less political.
"This is speculation on my part, but it's based on research that shows in the 1990s Evangelical Christians were much more aligned with conservative politics than they are now," Wright says. "Then you had Jerry Falwell and James Dobson at their peak. Now you have Rick Warren and Bill Hybels who don't affiliate with any particular political candidates. It's my guess that with this political neutrality … that the unfavorable opinions have dropped."
With all the recent scandals involving the church, Christians have also come under intense scrutiny for hypocritical behavior. Some studies have claimed that Evangelical Christians are just as likely to embrace lifestyles as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered and sexually immoral as the world in general.
In terms of divorce, Wright wrote Christians and members of other religions have lower divorce rates, about 42 percent, than do the religiously unaffiliated, about 50 percent. As far as adultery, the General Social Survey revealed 16 percent of Evangelical Christians reported they had committed adultery at some point in their life. Mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews all reported similarly low levels at 14-16 percent. Black Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated reported the highest rates of extramarital sex at about 25 percent.
When it comes to statistics about moral behaviors, Wright says the negative ones about Christianity often receive more attention than positive ones, and consequently are more likely to become conventional wisdom.
"Christians acting like Christians just isn't as interesting as 'Christians gone wild,'" Wright wrote. "As a result, bad news about Christians spreads faster and farther than good news."
Wright says the research that portrays Christianity negatively seems to get a lot more media coverage, perhaps because it is seen as more "interesting."
"Among Christians, we have a somewhat different process," Wright says. "We tend to use negative news to sell our books, sermons and seminars. If we can convince Christians that they are doing poorly in a given area, they might become more willing to listen to what we have to say. Ironically, in service of building up the church, we actually can work to tear it down."
Overall, Wright found that people who associate themselves with Christianity, as compared to the religiously unaffiliated, are more likely to have faithful marriages, commit less crime, interact honestly with others and not get into as much trouble with drugs and alcohol. What's more, the more committed Christians are to their faith, as measured by church attendance, the greater the impact the church's teachings seem to have on their lives.
Despite criticisms that today's Christians are "watered down" in both what they believe and what they do, the General Social Survey shows that since 1988 more than 80 percent of Evangelicals report believing in heaven, hell, miracles, angels and demons and God without any doubt and that there are clear and absolute standards for what is right and wrong. Even more surprising, the proportion of Evangelicals who pray on a daily basis has increased from 64 percent in 1980 to 75 percent today.
"We see this increase among Evangelical youth as well," Wright says. "It's not entirely clear why this is happening, but one possibility is that as society has become more accepting of people not affiliated with a religion, those most likely to leave Evangelical Christianity were those only marginally committed to it in the first place, leaving behind the more devout, more prayerful followers."
Wright also found that while the religiously unaffiliated rarely attend church or participate in other religious activities, many of them have strong spiritual beliefs. About half believe in God and believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and two-thirds believe in life after death.
"This suggests that most of the religiously unaffiliated are not adamant atheists, and they might be more receptive to various aspects of Christianity than we would have otherwise expected," Wright says.