Post-Religious America? Don’t Hold Your Breath
April 27, 2021
Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University and an Interfaith America Racial Equity Media Fellow.
In a recent essay for Interfaith America, I explored how Americans seem to be losing faith in organized religion.
Looking at the overall U.S. trends in recent decades, the picture can indeed seem dire. For instance, this chart shows the share of Americans who are affiliated with a church, synagogue or mosque – a figure that peaked at around 76 percent in 1945 and is currently at 47 percent, with a sharp accelerating trend that seems to appear after the year 2000.
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
This chart, meanwhile, explores whether respondents have attended a service at a church, synagogue or mosque ‘in the past seven days.’ The picture, while not identical, is quite similar. We see a peak of 49 percent of Americans attending religious services in the mid 1950s, and a steady decline that begins post-2000, going from 44 percent attendance to 30 percent attendance over the past twenty years.
Notice, that the share who attend service in a given week is always significantly smaller than the percentage who identify with a religious institution (and the share who belong to a religious institution is itself consistently smaller than the share of Americans who personally identify with a religious tradition such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.).
In any case, scanning these charts, one might come to believe that the levels of religious attendance and church membership that are reflected in the 1940s data were perhaps the ‘normal’ state of America in ages past, and the current levels of church membership and attendance are at some kind of unprecedented low. In fact, neither of these assumptions would be correct.
Consider church membership. When we zoom out a bit, we see that the percentage of Americans who are affiliated with a church, synagogue or mosque today is roughly equivalent to what it was in 1900. And prior to 1900, even fewer Americans belonged to a religious congregation.
Church membership in the U.S. was relatively low for much of U.S. history, yet grew substantially from the 1890s through the mid 1960s. Church attendance likely followed similar patterns – and perhaps religious identification as well.
In the early 70s, only 6 percent of Americans were religiously unaffiliated. However, this was hardly the case during America’s founding. Many early Americans were deists, Unitarians, agnostics or otherwise unaffiliated with ‘traditional’ faiths – and the specter of atheism loomed large from the outset. And then, of course, there were the diverse spiritual beliefs and practices of the indigenous Americans, which generally did not conform with ‘religion’ as typically understood by those of European ancestry. American history is replete with waves of religious revivalism attempting to fold unchurched people into the Christian faith. All said, the share of Americans affiliated with organized religion today may be far from the historical peak, but it is perhaps not far removed from the U.S. historical norm.
The chart above is from a new book by Robert Putnam, The Upswing. The basic pattern it reports for membership in houses of worship also holds with respect to the share of Americans belonging to labor unions, national chapter-based organizations, and even family formation. Moreover, the same ‘inverted u’ pattern observed with respect to these social bonds also plays out for trends in civic engagement, trust in institutions, political participation, cross-partisan engagement, economic equality, social mobility and more. Overall, Putnam argues, the trends observed in America today closely approximate conditions during the ‘Gilded Age’ (i.e. the 1870s through around 1900).
The book highlights how the decline of organized religion is not incidental to the other trends. The rise of the ‘social gospel’ in the late 19th century played an important role in building momentum in the formative years of the ‘upswing’ across the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions Putnam explores. Religious participation predicts increased likelihood to donate and volunteer for both religious and secular causes and organizations. It predicts higher voting and other forms of civic participation. And the erosion of organized religion in America seems to have exacerbated declines across many measures of social solidarity, equality, and engagement. However, these declines need not persist indefinitely.
In a sense it is encouraging to recognize that the United States has experienced similar levels of social anomie in the past as we are living through today, and successfully built institutions, practices and norms to pull ourselves together. This is a feat that contemporary Americans or our successors could conceivably repeat.
Therefore, America is not necessarily headed towards godlessness, on a one-way trip to secularism. If it seems that way looking at charts like the ones that opened this essay, this is because most such graphics begin near the WWII era, which was an unusual period of flourishing for organized religion in the United States. Again, it does not represent our historical norm.
Indeed, although America has returned to roughly the same level of affiliation with religious institutions as we had in 1900, even this was a significant increase over earlier periods. As Roger Finke and Rodney Stark showed in Churching America, less than 1 in 5 Americans were part of a religious body at the time of the nation’s founding. That is, despite a half century of constant declines, roughly twice as many Americans attend church today as compared to the time of the late 18th century.
Churching America goes on to argue that religions in the U.S. tend to thrive insofar as they meaningfully address problems adherents are working through, and demand meaningful sacrifices and lifestyle changes. Meanwhile, those approaches to religion that are lax, individualistic, rationalistic, or conformist with respect to secular culture tend to peter out.
Commensurate with Finke and Stark’s analysis, a recent paper in Sociological Science shows that, actually, there have been no declines in religiosity among those who are intensely religious in the U.S. Roughly the same share of Americans fall into this group, exhibiting roughly the same levels of religious intensity as they have in the past. It is only moderate religion that is on the decline in the U.S.– driven primarily by those who were weakly affiliated with a faith tradition coming to abandon it altogether. As a consequence, although smaller shares of Americans are identifying as religious, a growing share of those who do identify with religion are likely to be ‘intensely’ religious.
Consider: although mainline Protestantism has been on the decline in the U.S. for some time, those who continue to identify as protestants today are slightly more likely to attend weekly service than protestants were in the 1950s.
We should also take care not to be overly loose in describing the religious decline. It is not a trend observed for religions across the board in America, but instead seems more-or-less exclusive to Christianity (and to a lesser extent, Judaism). Most non-Christian faiths have been holding steady or increasing their shares of the U.S. population – and these trends are projected to accelerate further in coming decades.
But even with respect to Christianity, the declines in the United States have been nowhere near as broad based as in Western Europe. Moreover, the shift from religion to ‘unaffiliated’ does not seem to be a one-way journey in America. In fact, according to estimates by Pew Research, “nearly half of those who were raised unaffiliated now identify with a religion.”
These newly-affiliated Americans may not return to the specific denomination or religious tradition that their parents were raised in, but they often find their way back to God nonetheless. Indeed, we can already see faint glimmers of a possible rebound among contemporary youth. According to Pew’s most recent Religious Landscape study, younger millennials seem to be slightly more likely to attend church, Bible study and/or prayer groups as compared to their older peers.
Finally, it must be noted that outside of North America and Western Europe, religion (including Christianity) is growing, not shrinking. This has important implications for American religiosity because 1st and 2nd generation immigrants comprise an expanding share of the U.S. population – and hail primarily from parts of the world where religious faith is booming.
Consequently, if immigration continues at its current levels (or grows) – especially if the religiously unaffiliated continue to have lower birthrates than virtually everyone else – demographic changes could help spur increases in American religiosity over time.
In short, rather than a decline of religion in the United States, we could be seeing a pruning, both of adherents who were never really committed to begin with, and approaches to faith that concede too much and ask too little. In their place may emerge more dynamic and socially relevant forms of religious expression – which demand more of believers and society writ large. Simultaneously, the religious landscape seems poised to become far more diverse – with non-Christian faiths growing alongside Christianity, and adherents in the U.S. pulled from a broader range of backgrounds and life experiences.
In the realm of politics, partisans have been proclaiming the emergence of an enduring Democratic majority now for more than half a century – a prospect that remains as dodgy today as it ever was. People have been proclaiming the death of religion for longer still – from Marx and Nietzsche through the ‘New Atheists’ and into the present. And yet, religion continues to thrive.
The lesson: nothing is inevitable. None of this is settled. Yes, growing irreligiosity, inequality, cynicism and dis-integration define America’s present and recent past. However, they need not define our future.