Chart: American religious identity has fallen off a mountain

Chart: American religious identity has fallen off a mountain May 7, 2020

A new meta-survey of American religiosity includes an eye-opening chart that starkly illustrates the nation’s precipitous plunge in religious affiliation from 1900 to 2018.

It looks like something fell off, if not a vertical cliff, a very high, steep mountain.

religious affiliation decline united states survey atheism
Falling off a ledge. (Photocreo Bednarek, Adobe Stock)

In 1900, some 98 percent of Americans affiliated with a particular religious tradition, according to the study by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, “Promise and Peril: The History of American Religiosity and its Recent Decline.” But by 2018, that figure had slumped to around 70 percent.

In demographic terms, that’s a big, quick drop.

A number of indicators undergird this clear trend, the report’s author, AEI Adjunct Fellow Lyman Stone, explains in the study’s executive summary:

“By any measure, religiosity in America is declining. … since peaking in 1960, the share of American adults attending any religious  service in a typical week has fallen from 50 percent to about 35 percent, while the share claimed as members by any religious body has fallen from over  75 percent to about 62 percent. Finally, the share of Americans who self-identify or report being affiliated with any religion has fallen from over 95 percent to about 75 percent.”

This is consistent with data showing about a quarter of Americans today claim no religious affiliation whatsoever (including a large proportion of atheists and agnostics) — and that proportion has been growing fast in recent decades.

Data on American religious identification was synthesized from a variety of well-regarded, recurring surveys that religious scholars have turned to for many years. These include Gallup, Pew Research Institute, the General Social Survey, the American Religious Identification Surveys, the American National Election Studies, and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

Despite the startling decline evidenced by the collated data, Stone urges prudent thoughtfulness.

“The present decline is striking in its speed and uniformity across different measures of religiosity,” he wrote in the study report. “But a longer historical perspective suggests some caution in making overbold statements about what such a decline might portend.”

He notes that, although Americans today generally imagine devout religiosity among the their ancestral countrymen on the eve of independence from Britain, colonial spiritual life in the New World was much less monolithic.

“At the dawn of the American republic in the 1780s, probably just a third of Americans were members in any religious body, and just a fifth could be found at church on a given Sunday,” Stone wrote. “This was a historic low ebb in American religiosity. Thus, in some important ways, America today is more religious than it was two centuries ago and indeed at any point between 1750 and 1930.”

Of course, as we know now, American faith — almost exclusively Christian — surged during several periods of renewal from the 18th through early 20th centuries known collectively as the Great Awakening. And after World War II, an eruption of evangelical fervor (Billy Graham “crusades,” et al.) further turbo-charged U.S. religious experience. Evangelism surged throughout the rest of the 20th century and has become a prime influencer in the seats of government power in the 21st under President Donald Trump.

So, faith has ebbed and flowed in America, and it currently seems to be flowing again, for the historical moment.

Nonetheless, as Stone points out, slippage is clearly occurring in U.S. reverence for the divine — and the reason, he says (surprisingly), isn’t an organic retreat from supernatural enthrallment. As the author of a conservative report, he asserts (unsurprisingly) that the reason for this slide is spreading institutional secularism.

“America’s legal environment is increasingly secular, explicitly limiting support for religion,” Stone wrote. “Indeed, that changing legal and policy environment may be the cause of declining religiosity. … expansions in government service provision and especially increasingly secularized government control of education significantly drive secularization and can account for virtually the entire increase in secularization around the developed world. The decline in religiosity in America is not the product of a natural change in preferences, but an engineered outcome of clearly identifiable policy choices in the past.”

In support of his hypothesis of less-than-fatal-decline in religiosity, Stone presents the curious information that whereas before 1800 “virtually all babies born in America had church baptisms, dedications, or christenings” and Christian names, today “all this has changed”:

“More Americans have no religious identity at all. A quarter do not identify with any religion, less than a third are given names connected to any religion, and America’s legal envi-ronment is increasingly secular, explicitly limiting support for religion.”

This all sounds like it could have come out of Attorney General Bill Barr’s mouth at one of his increasingly frequent official speeches demonizing secularism and extolling instead what he believes are the essential and critical public values of the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” He implicitly seeks a Christian theocratic government in the United States, the Constitution be darned. (Read my latest post on Barr’s theocratic views, here.)

Stone asserts that “in relative terms” with Western European nations, the American decline in religiosity looks “about average.”

“The pace of decline in religious affiliation has been similar in America as in other countries, and the current level of religious affiliation is also rather middle-of-the-road: Americans are more likely to be religiously affiliated than are the British, Canadians, Dutch, Germans, Swedes, or Swiss, but they are less likely to be religiously affiliated than are Austrians, Icelanders, Irish, Norwegians, or Portuguese,” he wrote.

Although Stone’s report notes “promise” in its title, the text offers precious little for American religious affiliation.

“In the 16th century, the New World seemed to offer a hope to religious dissidents in Europe for a world free from persecution of their faiths,” he wrote in his report’s conclusion. “This hope was fulfilled in some cases and not in others. But the New World did develop a unique religious culture, maintaining a high degree of religious devotion much longer than Europe did. It is not entirely clear why this difference developed in the past, but, today, religiosity in America is in speedy decline, converging to the lower levels observed in Europe.”

Chart/American Enterprise Institute composite

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