Is the Era of Big Religion Over?

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Editor's note: In advance of President Obama's State of the Union address next week, RCP is rolling out daily "state of" reports to better frame the issues facing the nation. Today: The state of American religion.

Is America entering a new post-religious era? That's what some skeptics keep arguing.

Last year, researcher Greg Paul wrote in the Washington Post that atheism in western countries "has evolved" -- "evolved," get it? -- "into a forward-looking movement that has the wind at its back." He acknowledged that the U.S. had been something of a "religious anomaly in the Western world" in the past, but insisted atheists are now making "major gains while Christianity withers."

Do the polls back up such bold claims? Not really. Gallup has been tracking American religious preferences since 1948. The year Harry Truman was elected, Gallup's pollsters asked Americans "What is your religious preference -- is it Protestant, Roman Catholic or Jewish?" and got answers. They also predicted that Dewey would defeat Truman, but best to pass over that one in silence.

Americans at mid-century broke down as 69 percent Protestant, 22 percent Catholic, 4 percent Jewish, 2 percent non-religious and 3 percent "undesignated." Last year, Americans identified as considerably less Protestant (42 percent), a little bit more Catholic (23 percent), slightly less Jewish (2 percent), and considerably more secular. Fully 13 percent of Americans said that they had no religious preference, down 1 percent from the high water mark of 2010.

That sounds bad for organized religion. Yet it is only a part of the picture and a misleading way of looking at the data. The percentage of preferring Protestants has plummeted -- from 69 to 42 percent -- in large part because our understanding of religious difference is much improved.

In 1948, non-Catholic non-Jews in the U.S. were considered Protestants almost by default. There is ongoing theological and political debate over whether Mormons ought to be called Christians. I will not attempt to settle that dispute here, but one thing they are not is Protestant. The pollsters finally get that. Nowadays, you can tell Gallup that you are a Protestant (42 percent), merely a Christian (10 percent), a Mormon (2 percent), Christian Orthodox or a Muslim ("other specific" adds up to 5 percent).

Since 1992, Gallup has also asked a follow up questions. Just how important is your religion: "very important, fairly important, or not very important?" The trend line for those who say it is personally "very important" is down only slightly in almost 20 years, from 58 to 55 percent.

The rise of Americans who express no religious preference does not mean a dramatic uptick in atheism or a general American enthusiasm for unbelief. In 2007, Americans told Pew pollsters they would prefer a Muslim president over an atheist one. A year later, Pew found that 21 percent of those people who self-describe as atheists actually believe in God. Public service announcement, folks: the "a-" means "not."

Still, more Americans now describe themselves as secular than used to be the case. Why is that? We might chalk that up to the decline of religious authority. I was about to say "...among America's educated elite" but the data won't let me. It had been thought by many, including President Barack Obama (see his famous bitter clingers comment), that educational achievement and wealth meant lower church attendance. That turns out not to be the case.

Sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Andrew Cherlin released a surprising study last year of the church attendance patterns of white Americans. (They focused on whites because there is not much of a class divide for church attendance among blacks and Hispanics.) The study found a decline in attendance by those of "moderate education" but robust attendance by the college educated. Fully 46 percent of college-educated whites reported attending church at least monthly in the aughts, down from 51 percent 40 years ago.

Wilcox and Cherlin's findings on marriage are similar and may be related. The institution is holding its own among the educated and somewhat more well-to-do, they have discovered. At the same time, it is losing support among those with fewer resources and less education.

So what, you may wonder, is all this fuss about our glorious secular future? Once we look at the data in any reasonable context, we see that American religious preference has undergone a slight decline from a very high base of support -- over a 60 year period.

We also see that American religion is still very much alive and kicking, and rocking with a worship band. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, America is home to over 1,600 "megachurches" -- that is, Protestant churches with a bare minimum of 2,000 members. That's not even counting large Mormon and Catholic congregations.

Megachurches are thriving because they understand something about America's religious economy. It is a true, unruly marketplace of ideas with millions of willing buyers and sellers. There is relentless religious churn, as documented by Pew's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Pew's pollsters found that at least 28 percent of American adults "have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion -- or no religion at all." If we count "changes in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another," the figure jumps to 44 percent.

Many religious believers are unhappy with the market-oriented nature of American religion. The market is not a respecter of institutions, and ancient institutions are an important part of religion for a persistent minority of Americans. Every Sunday, a good chunk of us recite the Nicene Creed which includes a profession of belief in the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church."

Then again, there is evidence that Catholics in the U.S. interpret the creed selectively, or don't mean it, or are Protestants who've decided to mess with pollsters. A group of sociologists from Catholic University of America last year found 86 percent of self-identified Catholics believe it's OK to disagree with some aspect of church teaching and still remain a good Catholic. This finding is surprising for what these Catholics consider optional, as sussed out by USA Today's religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman: "Only about 30 percent support the ‘teaching authority claimed by the Vatican.' And 40 percent say you can be a good Catholic without believing that in Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ -- a core doctrine of Catholicism."

We might best describe the state of American religion today as "robust but confusing." Relative youths are having a harder time navigating it than past generations. Pew tells us that "Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion."

They may continue to go without religion, as the Greg Pauls of this world confidently predict. But the safer bet is that as they marry and have children at least some of these secular Americans will be calling on the assistance of a higher power.

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