Survey: U.S. Church Attendance Sinks to Record Low, but Prayer Is Still Resilient in the Age of the Nones

A survey research analyst who writes for the Washington Post asserts that, in America, religion is on the ropes. More precisely, Scott Clement says that

American religion is on the ropes, but it has a prayer.

A major poll whose results were released this past week, the 2014 General Social Survey, reveals that U.S. church attendance continues to fall.

A record-low share of Americans attend church regularly, affiliate with a religious faith and see themselves as religious. … The findings … mark a continuation of a decades-long departure from the pews along with a growing share who profess loyalty to no religion at all.

But reason isn’t truly taking over; prayer is going as strong as it was three decades ago.

Fully 57 percent of respondents said they pray at least once a day, little different from 54 percent in 1983, when the question was first asked on the survey. Three-quarters of respondents said they pray at least once a week, while 1 in 4 pray less often or never.

The poll has a margin of sampling error of 2.5 percentage points.

Back to the good news:

The stability of prayer contrasts sharply with erosion on other measures of religious commitment. Since 2006, the percentage of people describing themselves as “very” or “moderately” religious has declined eight percentage points, from 62 percent to 54 percent. The share affiliating with a particular faith has fallen from over 90 percent in the 1980s and 1990s to 79 percent in 2014. Just over 4 in 10 report attending worship services at least once a month, down roughly 10 points from three decades ago. All are record lows.

Christian Smith, a sociology professor who heads the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society, has an unexpected take on the decline.

“Religion is gradually becoming more personal, private, subjective in practice,” and “less public, institutional and shared,” Smith said. “People still believe religious things and practice religion ‘in their heads,’ as in prayer, but are less institutionally connected and engage in fewer public, institution-centered observations.”

From an anecdotal perspective, and at first blush, the view that a more quiet, private, Western-Europe-style faith is spreading, seems erroneous. Following the news and Internet culture as we do at Friendly Atheist, we are bombarded day upon day with aggressive instances of religionists asserting their claims to dominance and superiority, not to mention their “right” to insert their beliefs into laws, government practices, and public-school curricula.

On second thought, though, Christianists who think like Ray Comfort, Gordon KlingenschmittMike Huckabee, et cetera, probably really are dwindling in number, and sinking into increasing irrelevance. The bellicose squawking of those thought leaders (I use the term loosely) says nothing about the breadth of followers they have. I think Smith is right, and I’m glad I’m wrong.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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