Surprises within latest data on decline of US Religion

Abandoned Church – Picture by Darren Kirby – image available under the Creative Commons CC0 License

On 14th December 2021, Pew issued their latest update on the religious landscape in the US. For the non-religious, it appears to be very good news. The decline of religion in the US continues unabated.

Here is the overall big picture …

Rather obviously Christians are still the majority, but with a decline from 78% in 2007 down to just 63% now, this will one day no longer be the case if the ongoing trend continues.

Wait, hit pause on that happy dance for a moment, because there are a few hidden surprises in the data. All is not as it appears to be.

Let’s dig a bit and see what we discover.

Surprise 1 – This is not a story about Catholic Clerical Abuse

Given the almost continuous stream of stories regarding Catholic clerics abusing children and the associated coverup of that abuse, you might indeed think that it all plays a part.

The abuse saga very much points the finger at the institution itself and is not about a few bad apples. Because of a coverup that involved moving abusers from parish to parish, it granted them sufficient cover to continue the abuse. The discovery that this was happening on an almost industrial scale might lead you to conclude that many would indeed abandon Catholicism.

Apparently not.

Here is another chart that breaks the religious numbers down …

It is true that the numbers of people who identified as Catholic did decline between 2007 and 2019, but has since then recovered to about the 2014 levels. Overall, end-to-end it is a relatively flat line.

The really big decline has been amongst protestants.

Surprise 2 – Prayer

If you ask people, “What religion are you, if any?”, then the answer you get can be vague. For some, they tell you about the demographic that they belong to, but for others, they are indeed telling you about the belief that they truly embrace. How can you pull this apart and work out what people are saying?

Pew has a rather good way of measuring this, they ask people if they pray. In other words, they are not asking them about their cultural identity, but instead ask about how they practice a religious belief on a daily basis.

It is perhaps not a surprise to discover that the numbers here are very different than the statistics for group identity.

Here is how these numbers pan out …

Why do people go to church?

For some, it could be for social and cultural reasons. Your partner attends, so you also go to be with them. Alternatively, you simply go to be part of that group, an environment where your kids mix with the “right kind” of people. Perhaps it is just a place where your friends attend, so you hang out there as well.

These numbers suggest that there is a degree of that happening.

Only 45% now pray daily. Another 22% will sometimes pray, and 32% hardly ever, or never do.

But wait, take a closer look.

Some people stopped praying daily and perhaps pray less frequently …. except, the curve of people who pray less frequently remains flat. What we can see here is that many people who used to pray daily have jumped to “Seldom or Never”.

That’s a huge and rather dramatic shift, people are becoming far less religious in practice.

Surprise 3 – Other measures reveal a overall religious decline

There are different ways to gather data, different questions that grant insights.

Try these:

How important is religion to you?

  • Very – Now just 41%, down from 56% in 2007
  • Somewhat – Flat, 25% now, 26% in 2007
  • Not too much/ not at all – Sharply up, was 16%, now up to 33%

Again, the same story, a sharp decline in how people feel about religion.

How about this?

How often do you attend Church?

Only 31% attend monthly or more.

Amongst evangelicals, it is higher, and for other groups lower.

Yea, I know, I know, pandemic. Putting that aside even pre-pandemic, the numbers that attend monthly or more has been on a downward trend.

Mini-surprise: 3% of that 31% are the non-religious attending church monthly or more. My guess is simply to be with a spouse or to act as a taxi driver for a parent or friend who is unable to drive themselves.

As I eluded to above, with the pandemic in the mix, it’s tricky, so let’s park this one and not read too much into it except to observe that it also echos the bigger theme of decline.

Surprise 4 – The rise of the Nones?

The “none” category tends to lump together all those that do not identify with a specific religious identity. That includes …

  • Atheist – Those that don’t believe there is a god
  • Agnostic – Those that don’t know if there is or is not a God
  • Nothing in Particular – Those that simply don’t associate with any religious identity.

You can of course be all three. What is of interest here is the go-to box that people tick when asked.

All three?

Well yes, Atheist because an individual does not believe the religious claim, but also Agnostic because they don’t know with any certainty if there is or is not a god, and also would most probably not associate with any religious identity.

OK, back to the numbers.

Now, this is where things become interesting. Here are the numbers for these categories over the years…

Over the last 14 years …

  • Atheist has grown from 2% to 4% – not a huge leap
  • Agnostic has grown from 2% to 5% – again, moderate growth.
  • Nothing in Particular however has leapt from 12% to 20% – that is a big spike in numbers.

In other words, the protestant decline has in turn fed mostly into the “Nothing In Particular” category.

Bottom Line

The number of people who have no religious affiliation in the US is now higher than ever, never before has it been as high as 29%.

It is all part of an ongoing trend. 29% is not the end-game, simply the latest data point on a curve that continues to bend upwards.

If you perhaps thought that this was simply about specific religious groups becoming deeply toxic and highly politicized, then that’s not the full story. Belief itself is declining, people are praying less, attending church less, and finding that religion is not as important as it once was, and this has been in motion since pre-Trump and even pre-Obama.

In other words, we are in the middle of a rather dramatic cultural transformation that has been underway for quite some time

There is also no sign that it is in any way slowing down.

Why is this significant?

There is now a vast group, literally millions of people who are not religious. When faced with deeply religious rhetoric within the political arena, then they will potentially awaken one day and push back against that at the ballot box by aligning with people who share their values. Right now, none of the political parties are really considering them.

If they wish to truly represent all the people, then that needs to change.

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