Religious Softening: Mark Chaves

From Tom Breen:

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Despite the prominence of religious believers in politics and culture, America has shrinking congregations, growing dissatisfaction with religious leaders and rising numbers of people who do not think about faith, according to a new study by a Duke University expert.

In “American Religion: Contemporary Trends,” authorMark Chaves argues that over the last generation or so, religious belief in the U.S. has experienced a “softening” that effects everything from whether people go to worship services regularly to whom they marry. Far more people are willing to say they don’t belong to any religious tradition today than in the past, and signs of religious vitality may be camouflaging stagnation or decline.

“Reasonable people can disagree over whether the big picture story is one of essential stability or whether it’s one of slow decline,” said Chaves. “Unambiguously, though, there’s no increase.”…

The study wasn’t all bad for religious groups, though. Older people are more likely to be religious than the young, and America is on the cusp of having the largest elderly population in its history, Chaves said.

Immigrants to the U.S. also tend to be active religious believers, and birth rates may also favor the faithful. Devout families usually have more children than the kinds of non-traditional arrangements contributing to the demographic drain on religions, Wright said. Finally, there’s an extraordinary amount of good will toward religious faith in the U.S., especially in contrast with other Western countries.

“It’s not like there’s a lot of hostility toward religion in the United States,” Chaves said. “It’s just that there’s been a softening of religiosity.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Adam

    Every time I hear stories about America abandoning God I remember this:

    1 Kings 19: 13-18

    Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

    14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

    15 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

  • Sunny Murchison

    Professor Chaves,

    Hello. I ready your article. The United States is definitely in economic, moral and ethical decline. I believe this is due to the “softening of religiosity.” For the masses, in the United States, their god is money and material wealth,temporary and fleeting. No panacea. Sooo much loneliness and depression in this country, too. Most people have no direction. Is that why the United States is the biggest consumer of drugs and pornography worldwide?

    When Americans learn to become spiritual, again, and realize that their happiness is “an inside job,” your statistics, will again, change, Professor Chaves.


    Sunny Murchison
    Pasadena, California USA

  • Jason Lee

    Keep in mind these are really slight declines, if at all … they’re not big declines or something like we’ve seen in most of Western Europe. Also, some groups could be growing (Mormons, JWs) and others declining (Mainline Prots), but because there are more Mainliners, the total trend is stability or slight decline (again, if at all).

  • JoeyS

    I wonder what trends in the church have contributed to this? Did seeker-friendly churches remove all the rough edges? Did the Church Growth Movement underestimate the importance of real human needs in preference to “spiritual” needs? Just conjectures…

  • Patrick


    I guess everyone would have a different opinion. The way I was raised, my church life was inauthentic as I grew older.

    Repeated the same mantra weekly, that was about it.

    I eventually found a Church home where I felt like I was being taught new things almost weekly. That got me interested in Church again, otherwise I’d still not be attending.

  • TSG

    On a post on Jesus Creed two days ago called “How I See Things” Paul Johnston(#56) wrote “As for the Christian religious activism that has been expressed politically through the Republican party the last thirty years or so…..The right discussion ought to be about the effectiveness and the measure of the Gospel outcomes…Has the Gospel been advanced? Is America recognizably a more Christian place? Are you holier? Has the lot of the least of yours improved?”

    If you take this response out of the public issues arena, and apply it to attending a church, you could get the same questions. If a Christian becomes negative to those four questions after attending for thirty or more years, it becomes a function of the insanity argument of doing the same thing and expecting different results. This explains an openness to new approaches. You can argue that American politics is slow to change, but there is some wisdom built in to make it so. You could argue the same with our Christian communities. We’ll adapt. You always know that some outsiders want stagnation and decline, not understanding life and restoration.

  • Paul Johnston

    Whom but those committed to evil could resist an authentic expression of Christian love? If I fed you, clothed you, nursed you when you were sick, invested myself in listening to your story and worked with you towards positive outcomes, how could you resist me? Best of all if I took you to the alter so that you too could share in the gratuitessness that is God’s love, the source of all things loving and good, so that you too could go forward as a conduit of His love just as I had with you, just as someone before you had done with me, how could you resist this? Would anyone resist this?

    The question is, where is this love?