Decline in Religion

Pew study on religion, and here is a brief summary with a graph:

What does this mean for parents? for churches? for pastors?

Some Evidence of Decline in Religious Commitment in the U.S. Public

The continued growth of the religiously unaffiliated is one of several indicators suggesting that the U.S. public gradually may be growing less religious. To be sure, the United States remains a highly religious country – particularly by comparison with other advanced industrial democracies – and some measures of religious commitment in America have held remarkably steady over the years. The number of Americans who currently say religion is very important in their lives (58%), for instance, is little changed since 2007 (61%) and is far higher than in Britain (17%), France (13%), Germany (21%) or Spain (22%).8 And over the longer term, Pew Research surveys find no change in the percentage of Americans who say that prayer is an important part of their daily life; it is 76% in 2012, the same as it was 25 years ago, in 1987.

But on some other key measures, there is evidence of a gradual decline in religious commitment. In 2003, for instance, 25% of U.S. adults indicated they seldom or never attend religious services. By 2012, that number had ticked up 4 points, to 29%.

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  • CGC

    Hi Scot and all,
    Two quick things I have noticed or see in all this (1) the increase of people who say they are not religious at all (not atheists but simply non-religious or agnostic) has risen so much in this new millinium that if the number of people coming to faith was the same, we would be saying we were having a national revival in this country; and (2) there is a huge swing of people attending less and less in local churches. For many churches, it almost appears like they have lost a third of their members when in actuality, they have lost very few members, but people’s commitment level and how they view the church has obviously drastically changed!

    I am not sure this is all bad in light of what are we winning people to or what kind of churches are we bringing people into? If the gospel and modern churches have become increasedly secularized like the culture around us all, then increased participation in that environment could actually be more the church’s undoing than anything else. Sometimes I for one am happy that there are not more people coming into the church when the church is often so compromised, fighting among themselves, and so unhealthy at times. When the church does not look like the unhealthy dis-functional world, then I say give us all more churches like that!

  • Jeremy

    I, like most Christians, I think, tend to read stuff like this and get a little pit in my stomach. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind there’s still something that thinks of trends like these as “going backwards”. Bonhoeffer, specifically his letters from prison, have really caused a paradigm shift when it comes to this issue, though. It was actually a series on the letters over at the Experiemental Theology blog that triggered it. I highly recommend reading the series…

  • Marshall

    But the number of people believing in God, angels, generalized spiritualism, and whatnot isn’t changing that much. “Atheists” aren’t increasing particularly. It’s just a decline in commitment/participation to/with institutions. (And from where I sit, a lot of those who do want to participate are chuch-hoppers.) Maybe it’s mostly people who never did much being more honest and admitting that they would rather spend Sunday at the soccer games than sitting in pews.

    Which seems to show that the institutions are no longer very good at talking to anybody except themselves. Many institutions, a large strain of religious thought, seems to want to stress the absolute otherness of God. The Immanence of Christ coming into the world has taken a back seat. I think there’s a lot of people like myself who would respond to a church active in the world, not in a dominionist/political sense but in a taking care of business sense, binding up the broken-hearted and setting at liberty the oppressed. And supporting the AYSO.

  • RJS

    I think this is real. I think this has significant implications. I don’t think typical evangelical youth ministry fixes or seeker sensitive services are worth a hill of beans in dealing with the issues behind this trend.

  • I’ve responded to this already on my blog. In short, I don’t know that there isn’t a sense of mission already in play for many, many people. Although not supported by the data, this report suggests religious institutions (like the church), among other things, as responsible for why more people don’t name a religious affiliation.

    I disagree.

  • It is worth noting that sociologists of religion believe that much more precision is required in understanding the survey/census category “No Religion”. It is a problematic term that sweeps under one canopy convinced atheists, agnostics, and other nuances like “indifferent” (meaning that religion is not an issue for some and they have not pondered questions such as “does God exist”?). Some helpful discussion about what kinds of people are attracted to atheism (males more than females, single men, those who have few family ties, low social obligations, low fertility rates), and the limitations of the “No Religion” category are discussed in William Sims Bainbridge, “Atheism” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion Volume 1 (2005). This journal article is freely available to download off the website for the journal.

  • RJS


    So I read your post on this – but I am not quite sure I understand your point. Why do you think that secularization is not part of the explanation?

    Why don’t you think religious institutions are responsible?

    I don’t think religious institutions are responsible – but I do think there is a larger social change occurring and that religious institutions are not responding well. I also think secularization is an issue, not in terms of a rise in atheism, but in rise of a simple indifference. For many church simply isn’t even in the back of the mind.

  • RJS (7.),
    The secularization theory does not account for the human person making choices, deliberating, assessing, pondering, and reflecting upon the powers and properties of religious institutions, and for that matter, institutions like universities, governments, financial institutions.

    I would also include with institutions: cultural concerns, such as perceived threats to person and nation by way of terrorism, public health, economic/financial peril or prosperity, and family breakdowns: some of which contribute to secularization theory.

    In both the institutional and in culture, people make deliberations regarding not only the powers and properties of both, but they also make some fallible determination about whether such manifest as constraints or enablements to their own sense of mission.

    In other words, I want to preserve the human as an agent in their own right.

    I don’t deny that religious institutions (or cultural components) contribute toward how and what the human person does. But, I want to affirm the freedom and capacities of that person to determine how they will go about making those deliberations, and to do so in a way that fallibly contributes to the fulfillment of their sense of mission. Towards that end, the human person will decide how and even to what degree matters such as secularization and religious institutions will participate in the contribution toward their mission.

    The contrast (The Pew Report) tends to weight institutions and culture (like secularization theory) with remarkable power to influence: and deny the human person the abilities to deliberate, to reflect, and to determine their sense of mission and how to go about fulfilling it.

    So, I’m giving greater weight to the human agent to decide what and how to engage with institutions and culture: not the other way around, which is what the interpreters of the Pew Report concluded.

    Now, I’ll make some guesses- briefly!- about my take on religious institutions and the secularization, and make a stab at your comment, “…there is a larger social change occurring…”

    Like you, Scot, me, a good chunk of the readers of the Jesus Creed blog, religious institutions- in our case, the church- have not made a significant re-casting of the Gospel to affirm and critique North American/Western culture. In other words, we haven’t received a credible proclamation that calls into question our sense of mission. I use the pronoun “our” in the broadest sense of inhabitants of Western culture.

    Meanwhile, not merely secularization (in its many expressions), but just as people who inhabit the Enlightenment project, we do receive in institutions and in culture affirmation and collaboration for any sense of mission that can be conveniently understood as embedded within Western culture. Let’s face it: as a people, not just Westerners, we’ll adjust our sense of mission if we believe we can acquire the benefits and enablements of something- academics, relationally, business-wise- but we will pay the price in that we cannot control outcomes.

    And, that is where I perceive many smaller social changes contributing to what you describe as “larger social changes.” Case in point: the decreasing number of post-university/graduation people who return to live and work in the communities they originated from. That has astonishing implications for how people thrive, and furthermore, even develop a sense of mission that has most of its content from the Gospel itself. (I’ll blog on that one in the future.)

    Another smaller change is the persistent uptick in undergraduates studying in engineering and the physical & biological sciences (disclosure: I was one of them.), and the corresponding (?) free-fall (decrease) in students taking majors in the social sciences and the humanities. Let me parenthetically add: while serving as a campus minister, I could almost guess who the engineering students were and who the humanities students were in any small group Bible study. There’s a way of perceiving the world that is distinct through the lens of the education: and to be consistent here, the students make choices about whether the discipline of their education will be a constraint or an enablement.

    So, there’s a not-so-brief reply. I want to affirm the human as an agent in their own right, and I want to agree with you that some of the institutional narratives- in our case, the Gospel proclaimed by the church- don’t connect. I don’t agree that secularization theory really has the influence some purport: when it does, it is because some, not all, human persons have activated the powers of secularization to participate fallibly in their sense of mission.

    I probably raised more questions than I answered. Thanks for reading this far.

  • RJS


    I would say that people are agents, free to act as individuals, but deeply constrained by larger changes within which they are completely powerless as individuals.

    So I choose to remain a Christian despite powerful cultural influences (in my surroundings) that call on me to dump ancient superstitions. Many of our buildings here have inscribed on them a quote from the Northwest Ordinance: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” This today requires constant apology because many, perhaps most, feel that religion, far from being required for good government and the happiness of mankind, is instead an impediment to both good government and the happiness of mankind. It would be much better if, so they think, we could just erase that first word and start with “Morality” – and they do all think morality is important.

    I see secularization not as an irresistible actor but as a description of a general trend. The drop off in religious affiliation is a manifestation of the increasing secularization of our culture. In the mid 1800’s religion was viewed in general as a positive influence – today it is not.

    By the way – we are seeing a fall in the numbers of students pursuing degrees in the humanities. But no such decrease is found in the social sciences, many of these are among our fastest growing majors. The sciences are stagnant or decreasing – while engineering and business are seen as pragmatic routes to future careers, and are growing.

    What difference do you see between students in humanities vs engineering? I find engineers to be pragmatists and much more open to religion; humanities students and social scientists are more likely to view religion as oppressive.

  • Kel

    I don’t think it means, as some contend, that non-Christians are seeing contemporary Christianity and rejecting it as politically partisan, hateful and intolerant (Campolo, Claiborne, Bell, et al). Frankly, I think our culture has become so accepting of attitudes and practices that traditional Christianity has always called evil that there is little stigma attached to sin (especially sin that doesn’t cross a legal line like cohabitation, homosexual unions, abortion, pornography, drunkenness, etc.).

    In other words, our culture tolerates sin more and, if that is so, why bother with religion? Why should I not pursue what my flesh wants when, increasingly, the world (kosmos in John–the created order in rebellion against God) says, “Hey, do what you want”?

  • AndyM

    @Kel (10): this just hammers why there is some benefit in lobbying for legislation for morality in line with the bible. the second use of the law to restrain evil and encourage righteousness. it doesn’t save, but it at least slows the hardening of the conscience.

    nobody wants anything they do called evil and sinful. everyone reckons that they’re decent enough, and that “on the balance of good things and bad things” surely God will let them into heaven if it exists. gay marriage is an issue as gays don’t want there to be any difference in their relationships and heterosexual marriage. remove the last vestiges that might spark them to think that there is something not right with where they are at. civil unions can provide the legal protections sought, but to me gay marriage appears to be an attempt at conscience hardening.

  • RJS (9): Thanks for your reply.

    I would want to assert that if you can describe constraints, then you are practicing the very deliberation that I’m arguing for. Furthermore, there will be some people for whose sense of mission will resist those perceived constraints: and they pay the objective price for doing so. The Occupy movement would include women and men for whom resisting financial institutions (and law enforcement?) is both coherent with a sense of mission, and for some with Christian faith, coherent with the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. They perceive the constraints but resist: they are not powerless, but the constraints are nonetheless real.

    Your description of the cultural influences: spot on. Really on target. It’s worthy of a further elaboration at another time, but suffice it to say: there are still people for whom they assume their supposed neutrality privileges them with a particular epistemic vantage point with which to assess and label those with religious commitments. Such people are worthy of close conversation to politely request a demonstration of how they arrived at such a social location.

    Re: secularization. Yes, well…I understand your description. That summary is not far from secularization theory: but, I am not the first, and won’t be the last, to declare it is a moribund theory. The whole force of the theory is that if you have economic prosperity (relatively), then religiosity will decrease; if you have economic decreases or troubles, religiosity increases. The theory asserted the US would become agnostic and atheistic in increasing measures over the decades starting in the 1960’s. It hasn’t happened, and the recent Pew Report did not contribute to vindicating that theory. It’s different from your summary, but I would want to confuse the two.

    I’ll stand by my comments on social sciences students decreasing; but your question spoke to something I might have inadvertently communicated. Like you, I notice that engineering and physical & biological science students are remarkably open to religious matters; similar to you, I also notice that among some of the social science and humanities students there are comments that identify the exercise of oppression by people with religious commitments (like Christianity) and they extrapolate to the present. But neither of those attitudes were intended: my apologies.

    Instead, what I am noticing among the eng/phy/bio students are tendencies toward “binary readings” of Scripture- either an interpretation is “this or that”, and one of those interpretations is complete and somewhat final in its description. This also extends to matters of faith. In contrast, the social science and the humanities students have a much greater appreciation for a breadth of possibilities when reading the Bible, including some acuity for historical distance, cultural diversity, and differing family and political practices. That kind of holistic reading contributes and assists in the development of faith.

  • RJS


    I don’t think prosperity per se has anything much to do with secularization … “I have money and security and therefore don’t need God” simply misreads both the past and the present. I think education and understanding do have a great deal to do with secularization – corporate, cultural understanding more than individual achievement (the accepted authority in culture is changing). And it is a sociological force. There is a deep philosophical materialism that is becoming the base assumption. This is not an overnight change – but it is spreading, and it has been growing since the 60’s. The US, like Europe has, is becoming increasingly indifferent to religion. This is one of the reasons that I emphasize the idea that God is not the answer to “that which cannot be otherwise explained.” Any such view of God will hit a wall.

    I separated engineers from the scientists for a reason as well (not to be disrespectful of engineers). Any “real” scientist knows that the binary thinking approach doesn’t work – all of our current descriptions have a range of validity and boundaries to be pushed. All such generalizations of types of students have limitations of course. For all there is a need to engage in informed conversation, prepared to deal with the issues that arise.

  • Jason Lee

    The analysis presented here is not adequate because it doesn’t disentangle age, period, and cohort. In other words, this analysis doesn’t parcel out whether young people are always less affiliated (even in prior generations).

  • JamesD

    I do not believe that wealth or prosperity defines whether a person is religious or not, however it does seem to play a role in faith. I don’t think I need to argue that people who are less fortunate or living in third world countries generally are more religious compared to more wealthy countries. This could have to do with the mindset that a less fortunate person is more likely to rely on religion to help them out in tough times. Whereas a rich person would not need the help of a God to make their life better considering they live a pretty good already. It could also have to do with education, considering the wealthier you are, chances are you will have a better education. Having a good education means you will have had science courses and in these courses there will be other explanations for how the world was created and why things happen besides the belief that God did it. This will cause people to be less likely to believe in religion due to their financial and educational background. A good example is the U.S. where it is becoming more acceptable to be considered a “none” or an atheist, which contributes to the idea that wealth is a main contributing factor to religious belief.