Presbyterian membership down 5% again

Written by Peter Smith on .

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lost 5 percent of its members and more than 100 of its churches to other denominations in 2014, matching both of those figures from each of the previous two years.

Newly released statistics by the church show a membership of 1,667,767, down 5.25 percent from 2013 and 15 percent since 2011. Some 101 churches were dismissed to other denominations, bringing to 359 the number since 2012 with a growing wave of departures.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has well under half the 4.2 million in the mid-1960s when its two predecessor denominations were at its peak, as were several other historic Protestant denominations that have since been in numerical decline. 

Many of the congregations have left to join more conservative Presbyterian bodies in reaction to liberal trends in theology and sexuality, such as the approval of the ordination non-celibate gays and lesbians in 2011. Earlier this year, the denomination also authorized same-sex weddings in its churches nationwide, and the Pittsburgh Presbytery added its assent to that move on Thursday.

While there are plenty of anecdotes of people joining Presbyterian congregations because of their progressive stances, the net result has been in the red.

The membership loss has also been compounded by the denomination's aging membership and low birth rate. 

The statistical report was underscored separately by a survey by the Pew Research Center released on Tuesday that found the denomination dropping to 0.9 percent of the American population in 2014 from 1.1 percent of the population in 2007.


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Countering religious violence a challenge

Written by Peter Smith on .


Usama Hasan says his heart sank when he saw English-language propaganda from the self-proclaimed Islamic State — and realized it was quoting the English translations he had done long ago of ancient religious texts.

Today, Mr. Hasan is senior researcher at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, which works to counter Muslim extremism from within the Muslim community.

But it was a long journey to that point for Mr. Hasan, who grew up the son of South Asian immigrants who were alienated by the increasingly secular and sexualized climate of England of the 1980s.

He told a University of Pittsburgh audience Friday he had memorized the Quran by age 11. He rallied around the ideology of Muslim supremacy, opposing against what he and his comrades perceived to be a decadent and oppressive West. He translated Arabic religious texts and helped spread the ideology of Salafism, a puritanical form of Islam, and even fought briefly in Afghanistan against Soviet occupiers.

But bit by bit, his extreme views faded. The idealism of the Afghanistan resistance crumbled as jihadis turned fiercely on each other. He began to see extremist Islam as oppressive of women and minorities.

The Sept. 11, 2001 murders of thousands of Americans deepened his soul-searching, as did the brutal murders of schoolchildren in Beslan, Russia, in 2004.

Then came “7/7” — terrorist bombings on the London transit system on July 7, 2005 by Quran-quoting suicide bombers.

“Not only was it an attack on my city, it was an attack on my religion, on its most sacred symbols,” Mr. Hasan said. “For me that was the last straw. I had begun speaking against extremism before, but after 7/7, I realized there was no time to sit back. We have to take on the extremists openly.”

Mr. Hasan spoke at the the conference, “Countering Violent Extremism in the United States and European Union,” held at the Twentieth Centurty Club in Oakland Thursday and Friday. It was organized through the European Union Center of Excellence and European Studies Center, part of Pitt’s University Center for International Studies.

The conference brought together leading scholars from North America and Europe in the growing field of countering violent extremism — which even has its own acronym, CVE, among those in the field — along with government employees and Muslims working to within their own communities, from Pittsburgh to London.

“It’s been a fantastic opportunity to learn from these people,” said Michael Kenney, associate professor of international affairs at Pitt and organizer of the conference. “We want to increase awareness without creating hysteria.”

Multiple speakers agreed there’s no easy way to identify a potential terrorist who claims to act in the name of Islam.

Of those radicalized in the West — still a small minority of Muslims and even rarer in the United States than in Europe — some are deeply religious, some aren’t. Some are converts, some aren’t. Some have criminal records, some don’t.

And experts pointed out that many people, like Mr. Hasan, embrace extreme ideologies without ever engaging in terrorism.

Mr. Hasan said Muslims need to do their part in cultivating a religion that comes to terms with modernity, including the scientific method and democracy.

“Islam is a beautiful religion and has many things to offer the world, but so does Western society,” he said.

Targeting Muslims and mosques with blanket suspicion, is counter-productive, speakers said.

“As much as looking at radicalization is important, we need to keep in mind the numbers are extremely low, and a focus on radicalization might actually increase biases against Muslim communities in the U.S.,” said Barak Mendelsohn, associate professor of political science at Haverford College near Philadelphia and a researcher into radical religious groups.

He said the United States may not be able to solve the roots of terrorist groups in the chaos of such lands as Syria, Iraq and Libya. But he said the nation needs a strategy.

“If the U.S. really wants to make a difference, it needs to think really hard about what it's doing in the Middle East,” he said.

Photo by Bill Wade/Post-Gazette
Moderator Michael Kenny, Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, left, and Usama Hasan, senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation in the U.K., and a former radical salafi activist, listens to another speaker April 10 at the Countering Violent Extremism in the United States and European Union conference by the University Center for International Studies and held at the Twentieth Century Club.


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Jehovah's Witnesses in news again at their North Side birthplace

Written by Peter Smith on .



It's been a long time since Jehovah's Witnesses made big news from the North Side of the Allegheny River, but there it is.

Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Jason Worilds is retiring, walking away from potentially millions as a free agent in the prime of his career. Steeler sources tell my colleague Ed Bouchette that Worilds plans to do spiritual work on behalf of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

We haven't heard from Worilds directly on the motivation for retiring, but there's a little bit of deja vu here. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses got their start on the North Side, not far from present-day Heinz Field — led by another young man who walked away from a prosperous career (a chain of family-owned stores) to pursue ministry work.

A historical marker in Allegheny Center recounts how Charles Taze Russell -- a native of what was then Allegheny City (now the North Side of Pittsburgh) -- started a Bible study and a publishing enterprise that evolved into the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. The church still does business under that name even though it relocated its headquarters from Pittsburgh to New York a century ago.

Jehovah’s Witnesses emerged out of 19th century evangelical movements that expected the imminent return of Jesus, and they have had to work their way through great disappointments at times such as 1914, when their end-times scenarios didn't turn out as expected.

They operate very separately from other churches -- so much so that despite their Protestant roots, sociologists often treat them as a category unto themselves -- and have many distinct doctrines and practices that have them and other Christians doubting each others' bonafides. They believe in Jesus as Savior but not the the Trinity. They have refused blood transfusions and reject formal religious titles, considering all members ministers while operating under a hierarchy that includes strict discipline of members.

They have won U.S. Supreme Court cases protecting their rights to conduct door-to-door evangelism and not to salute the flag; but in some other countries they have faced severe persecution, including Nazi Germany.

Like other religious groups, particularly those with hierarchical governments, Jehovah's Witnesses have faced lawsuits over sexual abuse of children and have been found liable in some cases, with damages in the millions.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are best-known for persistent door-to-door evangelism and distributing literature such as The Watchtower magazine, which originated in Pittsburgh under Russell. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses list 1.2 million members in the United States, with about 8 million worldwide, according to its 2015 yearbook. The yearbook does not give state or local statistics, but its directory lists dozens of kingdom halls, or church buildings, in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not rule out athletics per se, citing Bible verses that encourage bodily fitness and health. But it would be hard to square a professional football career with their beliefs, based on readily available online publications.

These writings caution particularly against violent and physically risky sports, saying the Bible mandates safe, healthy conduct. The publications also warn that too much participation in competitive sports takes time away from spiritual activities and exposes one to the influence of unbelieving teammates.

Most apropos to Worilds, the writings give several examples of athletes who gave up competitive sports for spiritual priorities. 

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Traditional religions, unaffiliated predominate in Pittsburgh

Written by Peter Smith on .

I find three major takeaways from a new grassroots survey on religion in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

The first is that, for all the colorful diversity of Pittsburgh's religious scene, the traditional faith groups still have the big numbers. The second is that there's a big showing for those with no religious affiliation. The third is that, on political issues that take on a strong religious cast, Yinzers are, no surprise, maroon.


  • Protestant: about 40 percent (a breakdown follows below).
  • Catholics: 36 percent.
  • Unaffiliated: 18 percent.
  • Jewish: 2 percent.
  • Hindu: 1 percent.
  • Orthodox Christian: 1 percent.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses: 1 percent.
  • Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists: Fractions of a percent each.
  • Other: 1 percent.

These numbers come from an extensive survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute as part of the American Values Atlas. It's an in-depth nationwide survey of people for their religious affiliations and views on various issues colored by religious belief or disbelief. For local purposes, the area surveyed was the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area, also used for U.S. Census purposes.

PRRI surveyed 482 people in and around Pittsburgh for a margin of error of 5.1 percentage points; it surveyed more statewide and even more nationwide. 

If there's a drawback, it's that nothing like this survey -- the kind where pollsters call people up individually -- seems to have been done before on a metro level, so there's nothing to compare it with. But studies of religious membership statistics have shown declines in many of the largest area groups, such as Catholics, Methodists and Presbyterians. 

Pittsburgh is a famously Catholic, and particularly famous for the diverse European immigrant groups that gave Catholic parishes rich ethnic identities. Unfortunately, this survey barely touched that aspect. It found less than half of a percent each of Catholics who were Hispanic -- far, far less than in many regions -- or not white. The survey didn't do any breakdown along European ethnicities. It didn't show levels of those in Eastern Catholic rites, such as Ukrainians (something we're more interested in here than in much of the country.)

As for Protestants, the bigger denominational (or not) groups include:

  • Methodists: 8 percent.
  • Presbyterians: 8 percent.
  • Non-denominational: 7 percent.
  • Baptist: 5 percent.
  • Lutheran: 4 percent.
  • Pentecostal: 3 percent.

Even those labels are general, because there are various stripes of each of those groups, divided along theological and racial lines. 

Another way that the survey slices it is:

  • White mainline Protestant: 18 percent
  • White evangelical Protestant: 16 percent.
  • Black Protestant: 3 percent.
  • Other non-white Protestant: 2 percent.

Just three years ago, it was big news that people who did not identify with religion had grown to nearly 20 percent of the American population, according to the Pew Research Center. The least religious regions have been identified as New England and the Northwest. But three years later, even the relatively religious southwestern Pennsylvania is approaching that level -- 18 percent. Nationally, it's now 22 percent, according to PRRI. Unfortunately, the 2012 Pew study didn't break the numbers down at the metropolitan level.

One manifestation of this locally may be Sunday Assembly, a godless congregation that meets for fellowship but not faith. But the "Nones" are a diverse lot. Some are staunch atheists or agnostics. Others are spiritual-but-not religious people, many of whom believe in God but who don't join a congregation and mix and match their doctrines and practices (everything from Christ to crystals). 

Among the smaller groups, the 2 percent in the Jewish population is actually more than an adjusted study of synagogue membership counts, perhaps due to people who identify culturally but not religiously as Jewish.

The 1 percent of Hindus is in keeping with Pittsburgh's unusually high proportion of South Asian immigrants compared with other nationalities -- as are the lower percentages of Muslims and Buddhists. Also, there is a small percentage of Hispanic Catholics or Protestants compared with much of the country.

On other issues, Yinzers are more Democratic but no more liberal than the national population. They mirror the national support for legal abortion and same-sex marriage (figuring in margins of error) but are less likely to see immigrants as a national strength rather than burden.

Overall, the Pittsburgh region looks a lot like Pennsylvania politically. But Yinzers are more Catholic and less Protestant than Keystoners overall.


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