Religious disaffiliation is rising. Is there a path back to the fold?

Religious disaffiliation is rising. Is there a path back to the fold? April 21, 2021

It all started with a tweet.

It was March 2019, and the General Social Survey had just released its raw data, collected the previous year, on American political and religious life. For social scientists like myself, the survey is the most important instrument for analyzing changes in American society. That’s because it’s been asking the same questions on religion since its creation in 1972. If a researcher wants to know what share of Americans never attended church in the 1980s, the GSS is the place to go. As soon as I heard the latest results were in, I immediately downloaded the data file.

My primary objective was simple: I wanted to know how the seven major religious traditions in the United States had shifted over the previous two years. As soon as my boys were fed and happily playing in a bubble bath, I bounded down the stairs to my office and ran the more than 200 lines of computer code that would calculate the size of all seven religious traditions in every survey dating back to the early 1970s.

The result stunned me.

For the first time, the religiously unaffiliated were the same size as both Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants, the two largest religious groups in the United States.

I had to let the world know, but I was on a time crunch. My boys were starting to get restless in the bathtub. I quickly put together a graph, picked a premade color scheme and added the names of each religious tradition to the visualization. I wrote a quick Twitter caption, noted there was “some big news” and hit the tweet button.

I went back upstairs to get my boys ready for bed. I turned the lights out, and I looked down at my phone. The graph had already been retweeted nearly a hundred times. It was going viral.

What followed was one of the busiest periods of my life. Before this, I had spoken to two or three reporters in my entire academic career; now I was fielding two or three interview requests per day. They all wanted to learn about this ascendant group of Americans — people of faith who check “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. The Nones. That one simple graph had taken on a life of its own. It was picked up by most major media outlets in the U.S. Reporters from Europe were intrigued. Journalists, podcasters and pastors were all asking me the same questions: How did this happen? And what does this mean for the future of American religion? I didn’t know it at the time, but my entire life had led me to this moment.

While I have been a quantitative social scientist for over a decade, I have also been in Christian ministry since just after my 20th birthday. Wrestling with questions about the future of American religion is not just some cold and calculated academic exercise for me. It’s something I experience every Sunday when I get behind the pulpit.

I grew up Southern Baptist. My mother was a Sunday School teacher, and my father drove the church bus. My grandmother was the church secretary, and my grandfather was an usher. We went to church every time the doors were open. I was the kid who was there every Sunday morning and Sunday night. When I entered junior high, the youth group of First Baptist Church of Salem, Illinois, became my home away from home. I went to as many church camps, youth rallies, spaghetti fundraisers and lock-ins as I could. As I moved into high school, I began to lead Bible studies for the younger kids. I was all in.

While pursuing a graduate degree in political science, I began pastoring a small church of about 30 retirees. Thirteen years later, I’m still behind the pulpit.

During that time, I finished a master’s thesis, got married, bought a house, defended my dissertation and had two children. My church went from having about 50 people in the pews to just over 20. What was happening in American religion was also happening right in front of me.

But why? Every interview I do about American religion leads to this question. The truth is, I can’t point to just one reason why the religiously unaffiliated, the Nones, are growing astronomically, and no other academic can either. The problem with social science is that it’s the study of people. People are emotional, unpredictable and completely unintelligible most of the time.

One individual can leave a church after years of spiritual soul-searching because of a theological disagreement. Others leave because the congregation moved the Sunday service half an hour. Each person who walks away from religion has their own reasons and their own spiritual journey. However, there are large, unseen forces in American society that may make the decision to change religious affiliation easier or more difficult. Those invisible factors can be cultural, political, theological or just the spirit of the times.

II.

On the European continent, where dozens of religious wars have been fought over the past several hundred years, very few people actually attend church with any regularity. Poland and Ireland have high levels of religious attendance — but those are outliers. In Italy, the center of Catholicism, religious adherence matches that of the U.S., with just 1 in 4 attending services once a week. Other populous European countries like Spain and Great Britain have attendance rates in the low teens, while in Germany and France, fewer than 1 in 10 of their citizens attend church once a week or more. While there are no reliable measures of European religiosity before the 1970s, the hundreds of vacant churches that exist across the continent bear witness to the reality that Europe has become an overwhelmingly secular continent since World War II.

Yet despite all the evidence that developed democracies have cast off religion as they have gained higher levels of educational and economic advancement, one case is clearly an outlier from this trend: the United States.

There are several explanations for why secularization theory — which contends that higher levels of educational achievement and economic prosperity results in a gradual move away from religion — doesn’t work in the case of the U.S. One argues that this is an exceptional country, so the social science theories about religion and economic advancement just don’t apply. Some have argued that American society is a decidedly individualistic one where authority is distrusted, and the low-church ethos of many Protestant churches appeals to the anti-establishment predispositions of many Americans. Another explanation comes from the French social scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the United States just a few years after its founding and was surprised by the strong separation of church and state.

In essence, American religion dodged a bullet by not being sponsored by the state. Finally, some social scientists credit the religious pluralism of the United States as the cause of American exceptionalism. The fact that no one tradition encompasses more than 30% of the American population might insulate religion from a national backlash against all expressions of faith.

Another way to think about the issue is that the United States is experiencing secularization but that it is several decades delayed in comparison to countries in Europe. The evidence suggests that the United States is seeing a wave of delayed secularization.

It’s worth noting, however, that the highly religious in America haven’t gone away. A 2017 study from Indiana University’s Landon Schnabel and Harvard’s Sean Bock suggests “intense religion” has persisted even as more “moderate religion” has seen declines. Put another way, as secularism in the United States has increased, there’s been a deepening of religious intensity among those who still go to church.

Surveys also show the highly religious have remained steady as a percentage of the population, which means that their overall numbers have grown with the population and their higher-than-average fertility patterns are one sign the trend probably won’t reverse. With these trends a full conquest of secularism in the United States is unlikely — but even more unlikely is a modern-day Great Awakening.

III.

Maybe I am slightly biased because I am a trained political scientist, but I have always felt that the best explanation for the rapid rate of religious disaffiliation can be traced back to the recent political history of the United States. In recent years, everyone who studies religion and politics has been confronted with the same statistic: Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

While many political observers were quick to note that the GOP and white evangelicals have consistently had a strong relationship, many pundits viewed the 81% figure as some sort of statistical aberration when in reality it was just business as usual. In fact, 79.1% of white evangelicals voted for John McCain for president in 2008, and 77.4% cast a ballot for Mitt Romney in 2012. Outside of Black Protestants, there is no more politically homogeneous religious group than white evangelicals.

It’s important to understand that the connection between the devoutly religious and the Republican Party hasn’t always been this strong. In fact, in 1978, half of all white weekly churchgoers identified as Democrats, while today, just one-quarter do. This shift to the right among the devoutly religious may have ignited a backlash whereby political moderates and liberals fled church in droves when their political beliefs were challenged.

The other big factor in the country’s shifting landscape? The American family. It doesn’t look the same in 2018 as it did in the mid-1970s. A raft of social science research concludes that being part of a religious community is more likely when someone comes from a stable household environment. This may be because of a perceived hostility in churches toward single mothers or divorcées. It could be that people see religion as a luxury for people who have a weekly routine, something that falls out of the reach of many Americans.

In the 1970s, nearly three-quarters of all adults in the United States were married. That dropped below half in the late 1990s and has continued a downward trajectory. In 2018, just 42.5% of all Americans said they were married. Put another way, if you selected 10 random adults in 1972, seven of them would have been married. A random sample of 10 adults in 2018 would only contain four married individuals.

While marital status is an important part of the religious affiliation puzzle, it is not the only family-related variable that can drive disaffiliation. One of the most well-cited theories in the sociology of religion is called the “life-cycle effect,” which is the understanding that religious attendance waxes and wanes over a person’s lifetime. Specifically, children are often very religious, with many growing up in youth groups and attending church camps and other religious events. However, when they graduate from high school, they move into a more adventurous stage and try to find their own identity. Often, this leads to less-frequent church attendance. This disaffiliation is short-lived as many begin to settle down in their late 20s or early 30s, a life stage often characterized by marriage and child-rearing. Many want their children to grow up with a moral foundation like they did, so they regain a religious affiliation. If the life-cycle effect applies, the societal institutions of marriage and family should draw people back into the pews.

That’s exactly what the data from the General Social Survey shows: It’s clear that the group of people who are most likely to be religiously unaffiliated — to be Nones — are people who are not married and do not have children. In fact, 35% of that group said they had no religious affiliation in 2018, which is 12 percentage points higher than the rate of the general public. It’s worthwhile to note that someone who is neither married nor a parent is twice as likely to be unaffiliated as someone who is both.

While the rate of marriage has dropped substantially in the past 40 years, the share of Americans who say they have no children has stayed remarkably stable. The data indicates that the rate of childless adults was approximately 24% in the early 1970s but rose to 28% by 1990 and has stayed at that level for the past 30 years. The issue is not necessarily fertility; it’s family structure. Americans are having as many children as they did three decades ago, but a much smaller share of those children are being raised in two-parent households.

Taken together, the data paints a chilling picture. While it would be easy to say that this is largely driven by young people moving away from a religious faith, there’s also some evidence that older Americans are moving away from faith communities as they enter their twilight years. While churches used to rely on many of their young people moving back toward a religious tradition when they hit their 30s and 40s, that seems to be less and less likely with each successive generation.

The data indicates that less-educated Americans are only slightly less likely to move away from religion than those who have at least some college education, but as more and more Americans pursue coursework at the collegiate level, the likelihood of disaffiliation does increase. At the same time, many of the societal factors that used to keep women in church have begun to fade. In 2018, a woman without children was just as likely to be a “None” as a childless man. That portends a bleak future for religion, as more Americans are choosing to be child-free. Meanwhile, some of the cultural influences that surround religion among racial groups have diminished as well. Disaffiliation among Black Americans is rapid, and now there is no racial group that is not at least 30% religiously disaffiliated.

Truth is, there’s no segment of American society that has been immune to the rise of religious disaffiliation.

IV.

When it comes to understanding the rise of the Nones, I like to compare American churches to a foam cup of water. Churches have always had pinholes punched in the sides of their cups. They would lose water through the deaths of their older members, but the water kept being replenished by young families bringing their children or by members converting people from the community. For many, the water being poured in vastly exceeded the amount that was lost through the pinhole-sized leaks. Now those small drips have become gaping holes, and the water is leaving rapidly. Those holes represent a rapidly aging core demographic that is dying off, but those punctures also include those who grew up in the church but then left, never to return. At the same time, the flow of water that used to refill the cup has slowed to a trickle as churches continue to struggle to bring in new members.

If the flow of water into the cup slows down even more or the holes expand in diameter, the cup is going to run empty at some point in the near future. But all is not lost. If the church wants to increase the flow into its cup, there are potentially large reservoirs in the American population, some of which seem fairly easy to tap. If less water flows out the bottom and more pours in from the top, churches can maintain their congregations far into the future.

Let’s begin with the things that cannot be changed. I think that no matter how effective American churches are at evangelism or missions or community service over the past four decades, those efforts would have been only slightly effective at stopping the rise of the Nones. The best apologists, the most charismatic speakers, or the catchiest praise and worship bands would not have held secularization at bay. There’s no way to know for certain, but it’s fair to say that a significant chunk of the increase in the unaffiliated was due to shifts in American culture away from religion. It is foolhardy to think that what happened in Europe, which was also experiencing a dramatic rise in educational levels, would not, to some extent, come to American shores. The reality is simply this: Americans used to be Christians simply by default. Secularization merely gave permission for a lot of people to express who they truly are — religiously unaffiliated.

But I must make one more data-driven observation. While there are dozens of data points about the tremendous number of Americans who no longer affiliate with a religion, religious belief in this country is still surprisingly robust. In 1988, 1.8% of respondents to the General Social Survey said that God didn’t exist, and another 3.8% said that God might exist but there’s no way to find out. In 2018, just 4.7% of people said that there was no God, and 6.5% said there was no way to know for sure. While nearly 1 in 4 Americans no longer affiliates with religion, just 1 in 10 Americans does not believe God exists. The issue is not that interest in spiritual matters has declined; it’s that people do not want to label themselves.

So what gives? If almost all Americans still believe in the divine, we should not be seeing the number of Nones continue to slowly and steadily grow every passing year. But we are. So how do we respond? To start, we should listen to Nones’ stories, and understand how Christians, specifically white Protestants and Catholics, have made left-leaning believers feel more and more marginalized with every passing election.

V.

People who grew up in faith communities but left them when they moved into adulthood all have a story to tell. Some of those stories are not that enlightening. The church just didn’t work for them and they saw no benefit in regular attendance. Others left for reasons that are much more instructive. Whatever their motives, we should be seeking out people willing to tell their stories, inviting them to tell us, and listening — really listening — to them.

What sort of stories might we hear? Many people have been abused at the hands of people who claim to act in the name of Jesus Christ. For decades, parents have told their LGBTQ children that they are no longer allowed in their house. Some have been made to feel unwelcome when they’ve asked too many questions about why God acted so terribly in the Old Testament or how an all-powerful force could allow children to die of cancer. Others have been raised in such a controlling environment that rebellion has become their motivating force in adulthood. Many have been forced to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and church is a luxury these people feel they can’t afford. Some felt ostracized for marrying someone of a different faith or getting pregnant out of wedlock. These stories, and many more, are completely legitimate reasons to walk away from any institution — regardless of whether it embodies the truth or not.

A phrase I often repeat to my students when we talk about respecting other people’s political viewpoints is, “Your world is not their world.” I might also say, “Your story is not their story.” I think many Christians have a hard time putting themselves in the shoes of the person who left church and never came back or those who never made the connection in the first place. They don’t recognize that to belittle, minimize or try to explain away the stories of those who walked away or never connected to a church home is to fail to understand that not everyone comes to faith the same way we did.

One aspect of people’s stories that we often do not attend to is their politics. I know this observation has become an overwrought cliché, but God is not a Republican or a Democrat. But if someone walked into most Christian houses of worship this upcoming weekend, they would not find much evidence to support that conclusion. In 1972, half of all white weekly churchgoers were Democrats; now just a quarter are. Of the 20 largest predominantly white Protestant traditions in the United States, 16 became more Republican between 2008 and 2018. Four in 5 white evangelical Protestants voted for Donald Trump for president in 2016. The totality of that shift is absolutely staggering, and for many people whose politics lean left but who still want to be part of a Christian community, there are no options for them locally. And some churches seem to go out of their way to make that reality known.

I’m friends with a number of pastors on Facebook, acquaintances I have picked up over the past 15 years in ministry. Often, I feel like scrolling my newsfeed is a type of social science experiment. I’m just flabbergasted by how often these pastors post things that belittle, demean or misrepresent the views of their political opposition. In my mind, what they are doing is no different from placing a sign on the front door of their church every Sunday morning that says, “No Democrats Allowed.” If Christians want to seek and save the lost, why would some of them go out of their way to alienate a third of the population of the United States? There are already enough hurdles for someone who might want to come back to church. Why add another?

I have arrived at two conclusions. The first is that these pastors don’t realize there are Democrats who could potentially want to visit their church next Sunday. The second is that these pastors are convinced that no other political beliefs are compatible with the Gospel. And I see my liberal Christian friends fall into this trap as well. There are lots of people who voted for Donald Trump for well-considered reasons, and maligning these Republican voters does Christianity no favors. Either conclusion shows such an unbelievable lack of awareness and leaves no doubt in my mind as to why so many people have become or remain religiously unaffiliated.

Now, that’s not to say that all pastors engage in such behavior on social media. I know what many of them would say: I don’t preach politics on my Facebook feed or from the pulpit! I’d agree with them, and so does the data. But they need to recognize that their members are absorbing political messages from other aspects of their church involvement. They might pick up clues from a conversation they had before church about property taxes or a Wednesday evening small group discussion about abortion or gay marriage. There are no truly apolitical churches.

I understand the conundrum. Most religious leaders realize that speaking about politics from the pulpit might engender support from a majority of congregants but might drive others away, so they know it’s prudent for them to steer clear. That’s a natural response, and I think it comes from a good place. However, church members are always on the lookout for people to help them think about how to respond to current events or government policies.

When we do not apply the Gospel to the very real concerns of modern society, we’re opening the door for others to influence church members. Those “others” might be friends, family, pastors of other churches — almost anyone, really. But a pastor once mentioned to me that while he has a captive audience for one hour once a week, the cable news networks are piped into members’ homes for eight hours a day, seven days a week. That’s a sobering thought. If pastors don’t give congregations guidance on how to think about politics, then they will get it from somewhere else. And unfortunately, what drives clicks, eyeballs and ad revenue are media personalities who do their best to not only make their political party look good but make the other side of the aisle look ignorant, out of touch and immoral.

VI.

If I were a younger man, I would try to offer some sage wisdom and practical advice to fill the pews back up. However, experience tells me that there is no easy answer. I became a senior pastor at the tender age of 23. I had just started a graduate program and honestly needed to make some money to pay the rent. Luckily, the older congregants of a small church welcomed me with open arms. I thought that if I just preached really well and did a lot of visits, people would come to church. After a year, I left. I think that the church expected me to be a miracle worker, and I did nothing to downplay those expectations.

I learned that just last year, the church officially closed its doors, and the building was razed a few weeks later. The church I currently serve had 50 regular worshippers when I assumed the pulpit 13 years ago. Today, we are down to about 15 most Sundays. We’ve had weeks when the total attendance was in the single digits. Again, I thought that if I set myself on fire, people would come to watch me burn. That’s not what happened.

About five years into my ministry, I became listless and angry. Why wasn’t the church growing? Why can’t we bring in some young people? I thought of myself as a failure. I felt like one of those factory workers who got laid off after 20 years of hard work and dedication, wondering why my efforts weren’t being rewarded. I kept thinking about what the church used to be — scores of members with activities almost every day of the week and a tremendous influence on the community. Now we were struggling to keep the lights on. I was no different from the guys who meet for coffee at fast-food restaurants and talk about life before the factory closed.

The word nostalgia can be translated “an ache for home.” It seems that I, the coffee-shop crew, and frankly, a lot of people are consumed by this pining for a bygone era. But after a period of wallowing, I realized that our church must move forward. So we stepped out in faith and began packing brown paper sacks filled with food for schoolchildren who were struggling with poverty in our community. We started with 30 bags per weekend. We had no idea if it would work or if we could actually afford it.

Nearly a decade later, we pack nearly 300 bags of food each weekend and serve three local schools. Every time we think that the money is going to run out, a check shows up. Like the factory worker who sees the plant closure as an opportunity to go back to school and retrain for a different career, our food program was the avenue we took to keep moving forward.

When we first started organizing our brown bag program, some members of the congregation thought that we should drop a tract into the bags, but I refused. For me, the purpose of those bags was not to try to bring people to Christ. It was to show those kids that someone they don’t even know loves them and wants to help. So we just include a simple note saying who we are and what we are doing. We make sure to let them know that if they need help, they can just give us a call.

Well, one Friday, the phone rang. It was a grandmother of one of the children who had received a bag. The temperature had begun to drop, and her grandson didn’t have a warm coat. She asked for help. It just so happened that we were having a rummage sale that weekend and had a fellowship hall full of clothes. We invited her to come down and take whatever she needed. Just an hour later, she and her grandson stuffed two armloads of clothes into her trunk and drove away.

I have no idea if that young man or his grandmother will ever come to know Christ — whether that young man will be an atheist, a churchgoer or a None. But here’s what I do know: When that young man is sitting around as an adult one day, talking about spiritual things, he might have some bad things to say about the church, but I hope that when he tells his story of faith, he at least makes mention of the one time when he needed help and a church came to his rescue.

Ryan Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. This article is excerpted from his new book, “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They Are Going.”

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine.


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