What are Americans Leaving Churches going to Give up Next?

More and more Americans are leaving churches, never to return. People who are still regularly attending aren’t the majority any longer. A closer look at survey results shows how many people stop feeling religious and even stop believing in God, after they leave their churches.

Ariela Keysar, a lead researcher with the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Connecticut has just published a new study of available data, titled “Shifts Along the American Religious-Secular Spectrum” in the journal Secularism and Nonreligion.

Keysar compared data from 2001 to 2008, which shows how the number of nonreligious people rose considerably during that period. That isn’t news, but her breakdown of the different ways that people deviate from religious conformity is fascinating. My attention was quickly drawn to one segment, the “de-churched” among us.

The “de-churched” are a large but slowly shrinking segment of the American population. They have been religious, and they still feel attached to their religion and their God, but they don’t attend church now. In 2001, this segment accounted for 30% of Americans, but that figure dropped to under 25% by 2008.

During that same 2001-2008 period, the number of God-believing Americans attached to a religious tradition and going to a house of worship was able to stay above 50%, only dropping 1.5%. The de-churched apparently haven’t been heading back to church much. Where have many of them been going instead?

In order to account for the smaller percentage of de-churched, from 30% to under 25%, some of them had to have either dropped their religious identity, or dropped belief in god, or both. That portion of the de-churched becoming even less religious have had plenty of company, as other people left not only church but their religion and even their God behind as well. The number of people no longer believing in a god jumped several percentage points by 2008, for example.

Watching the de-churched closely will explain a great deal about the nonreligious and their journeys away from religious conformity. There is evidently no single path away from religion. People may walk out of church first, for example, instead of losing their faith. In fact, these demographic numbers say that most people heading away from religion take that de-churching step first, instead of dropping religion or God entirely.

If there is a “typical” person who is becoming nonreligious, that person stops attending a church but retains a religious identity and a god-belief, at least for a while. Whatever is driving this segment away from full communion apparently has mostly to do with their church, not their religiosity. The people who drop their belief in god first is a very small percentage, only around 1%, in comparison to the 24.7% of Americans who are dropping church first.

A couple of tentative hypotheses can be suggested from the numbers. First, unhappiness with one’s church over values rather than dissent with theology over God is by far the most commonly traveled path away from religion. Second, because most people who arrive at disbelief in God stopped going to church first, leaving the flock and its emotional influences plays a large role in losing belief. As psychologists can’t keep reminding us enough, our convictions have far more to do with social contact and context than any intellectual reasoning.

What is the lesson here, for secular people trying to guide people away from religion? I can see one obvious lesson from these numbers: Attract religious people away from their churches, in a way that doesn’t insult their intelligence or their values.


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