Finding Meaning

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Dubious Data

By Skip Hellewell

The Pew Research Center, known for phone-based polling, recently issued a report under this headline: “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Really? They’re writing off an institution that survived the worst the Roman Empire could inflict and for two millennia has steadily spread around the globe? I was planning to write about the late historian Will Durant’s observation that no nation had long survived without a strong moral code informed by religion. If Durant was right, Pew’s claim deserves a closer look.

Pew based their conclusion on declines in self-reported church attendance and religious affiliation. Those who claimed to be regular church attenders dropped seven points (from 52 percent in 2009 to 47 percent in 2019). Either figure is laughable. Our churches would be overflowing if folks went as often as claimed. Dubious data.

Likewise, Pew asked people to self-identify with a list of religions, with the last choice being “none of the above.” In recent years, the growth of “nones” has been breathlessly reported. Not surprisingly, the more it’s reported, the more it happens. “Nones” increased from 17 percent to 26 percent in 10 years. Even the value of 26 percent infers that 74 percent are affiliated with a church, an amazing increase in believers if it were only true. More dubious data.

But what if Pew had changed one word to say, “In U.S., Decline of Births Continues at Rapid Pace?” Nothing dubious here. Births are hard statistics, and reports the U.S. birth rate has fallen 16 percent in 10 years. The main cause is millennials delaying the start of families—an ominous trend dropping births below the rate needed to maintain our population, or even our Social Security system. It also affects our churches.

It’s well-documented that parents become more religious after the birth of children—it’s as though babies bring a bit of heaven into the home. Any family with a new baby understands this. As millennials delay having children into their 30s, it follows that they’ll also delay joining a church. Problem is, some things can’t be delayed. Fertility is perishable—a gift of youth. It’s much harder for women to conceive in their 30s than in their 20s. As millennials delay parenthood, the window for children—and religiosity—shrinks.

It’s not quite time to despair. There’s an important statistical term “regression to the mean” at work. It simply means that unusual outcomes are typically followed by more normal ones. Humans do learn from experience—the mistakes of one generation are often resolved in the next. Hopefully Generation Z, those born after the mid-1990s, will begin a return to the age-old practice of parents starting families in their healthiest years, the 20s. It will be good for America, the Social Security system, and our spiritual security system—the churches. Will Durant, wherever he may be, is surely nodding. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]


Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Calvary Chapel Seaside, 21540 Wesley Drive (Lang Park Community Center), 10:30 a.m.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 7 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, Sunday 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish). Saturday: 4 pm Reconciliation, 5:30 Mass.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 8:00 & 10:30 a.m.

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.

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