Are Americans Becoming Less Religious?

  • February 04, 2016
  • by David Crumm

Dave Smith, whose family has farmed potatoes and supported a church in rural Michigan for generations, is finding that lately he’s been getting a lot more out of prayer, Bible reading, and Sunday school.

Sarah Moreno’s connection to her family’s Catholic heritage inspired her to complete a rigorous master of divinity program to prepare for work in the church. But her discontent with some Vatican teachings, especially about women, grew. Now living in North Carolina, she feels her true vocation lies outside the church’s walls as a professional actor.

On Oregon’s Pacific coast, educator Jeanne St. John spent years without any particular religious affiliation, because mainline congregations seemed to shy away from her and her same-sex partner. Then a tiny Episcopal church welcomed the pair. Their marriage was blessed, and now St. John is head of the parish council.

At Harvard University’s humanist chaplaincy center, meditation teacher Rick Heller spends one night a week leading a small group that practices traditional Eastern meditation techniques stripped of all religious references. He’s just finished writing a guidebook arguing that people don’t need religion to benefit from meditation.

Though separated by thousands of miles and devotees of different spiritual practices, all four say they’re fascinated by a major new portrait of American religious life, published by the Pew Research Center—because they see their own lives mirrored in sections of the 265-page report. U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious: Modest Drop in Overall Rates of Belief and Practice, but Religiously Affiliated Americans Are as Observant as Before was released in November as part of the center’s ongoing U.S. Religious Landscape Study, which has become a leading source for in-depth analysis of religious trends nationwide.

The report reflects The Pew Charitable Trusts’ long-standing interest in religion and public life. For 15 years, the research center has surveyed religious practices and attitudes around the world. The most recent studies in the United States are proving crucial to understanding the nation’s growing diversity, drawing the interest not only of clergy and religion scholars but also health care administrators, sociologists, political scientists, and urban planners.

With its sample size and scope, the new report is a watershed in understanding the changing U.S. religious landscape. While there are clear signs of secularization in the unaffiliated segment of the population, “stability” is perhaps the best single word to sum up the findings about beliefs and practices of religiously affiliated Americans.' 

“We know that these reports are useful to a wide variety of people, not just religious leaders,” says Alan Cooperman, who directs religion research at the center. “Because of the size of this survey, we’re able to look at what is happening in even the smaller groups across the country.” The survey is based on telephone interviews with more than 35,000 Americans from all 50 states and continues on the baseline built from an earlier survey of more than 35,000 Americans that was conducted in 2007.

“The number one thing we see in this new report,” says Gregory Smith, the associate director of religion research, “is a pretty dramatic growth in the share of the population that is not religiously identified—now accounting for 23 percent of the adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007. That’s what’s driving the small declines we’re seeing in overall rates of religious observance in the United States: The ‘Nones’ are growing.”

But, says Smith, “that’s not the whole story. At the same time, the vast majority of American adults—77 percent—is religiously affiliated, and that group is about as religious today as when we first conducted the Religious Landscape Survey in 2007. In fact, on some measures those who are religiously affiliated appear to be even more religiously committed than in 2007.”

Cooperman says, “Even though the title of our report begins with the observation that America overall is less religious, readers should look at the entire balance. If you read the report, you’ll find a picture of a robustly religious culture in this country, in many respects.”

With its sample size and scope, the new report is a watershed in understanding the changing U.S. religious landscape. While there are clear signs of secularization in the unaffiliated segment of the population, “stability” is perhaps the best single word to sum up the findings about beliefs and practices of religiously affiliated Americans.

Yet, these Americans are changing, too, becoming more ethnically and racially diverse as well as somewhat more active in prayer, Bible reading, and small worship groups. There is also a marked change in attitudes toward gays across the religious spectrum—now including majorities of Catholics and mainline Protestants who say society should accept, rather than discourage, homosexuality.

prayer, faith, religion

Rise of the Nones

A great deal of discussion about the new report centers on the growing number of Nones and who they are. Scholars studying the group stress that this is an especially diverse minority.

In fact, there is no single “none” response offered in the Pew survey. Smith explains the process: “We ask people, ‘What is your present religion, if any?’ And then we list choices—Protestant, Catholic, and other options, including atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. We found that 3.1 percent of adults identify as atheist, 4 percent identify as agnostic, and 15.8 percent identify as nothing in particular. Those three groups together constitute the Nones.

“The question of what the growth of the Nones means for the future is an inherently difficult one,” Smith says. “Religious trends in America are too complicated for us to assume that this rate of growth will continue indefinitely.”

University of Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell, who studies religion and civic engagement, says that the Nones eventually will peak. “Every time we get a new report from Pew, I keep expecting the percentage of Nones to plateau. Year after year, the numbers are still rising, but I think at some point we have to hit a ceiling,” Campbell says. “Religion ebbs and flows in American life, and this recent rise in secularism is not a continuation of a long trend that goes all the way back to the American Revolution.”

Rather, he says, “this is an upswing we’re seeing right now. I think at least part of [the increase in Nones] is a backlash, an effort to get around the political baggage of religion and in particular the anti-gay rhetoric—which is particularly radioactive for millennials.”

New York University sociology professor Michael Hout says the Nones reflect a variety of changes in contemporary American life.

“Think of organized religion as having two parts—the organized part and the religious part—and it’s true that some Americans are distancing themselves from the organized part in a backlash against what that represents.

“But we’re also seeing the millennials’ slowness to make any kind of attachments, and to limit this to just religion is to miss the extent of what’s happening. Millennials are working various gigs instead of taking full-time jobs; they’re living with partners instead of getting married; they’re deciding how to vote at the last minute.”

Heller, the meditation teacher, says he sees the distancing Hout describes in many people he knows. Like Heller himself, they’ve concluded that it’s possible to use some religious techniques, such as chants, while declining to accept religious doctrine.

For his weekly sessions at Harvard’s humanist chaplaincy center, Heller revises traditional Eastern chants to omit references to supernatural concepts—in keeping with the theme of his newly published book, Secular Meditation. “In the age of the Internet,” he says, “people are exposed to all the possible beliefs and choices around the world.

Some people respond by becoming spiritual but not religious, and then some decide that they don’t need religion at all.” But, he adds, “I do think religious groups have a lot to offer. Churches and synagogues are communities, and if we leave those behind then we can feel lost.”

In Vermont, publisher Stuart Matlins finds support in the Pew data to explain the interest he is seeing in books that help readers explore everything from traditional Judaism and Christianity to more secular reflections on compassion and mindfulness. Matlins owns both the SkyLight Paths and Jewish Lights publishing houses, which produce books covering that entire range.

“For the Nones, we publish books about ethical and spiritual concerns, and those books are doing well,” Matlins says. “But all the attention on the Nones is distracting us from other trends identified in the Pew report that I see among our readers. Yes, people at the edges of religion are falling away, but the Pew report also shows that people who are [still affiliated with] a religious tradition are more committed and more involved,” in some ways, than they were before.

Fewer Americans are praying daily—but the majority of people remain committed, and observant.

The Pew study found that the three-fourths of Americans who claim a religious affiliation, such as these worshipers at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, are more devout than ever. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Growing group by group

While Heller’s group is untraditional, its small size is part of a trend shared with more traditional U.S. religious practices, such as prayer and Bible-study groups.

In recent years, the growth of small religious groups has been fueled—somewhat counterintuitively—by the growth of large evangelical churches, says Lyman Kellstedt, emeritus professor of political science at Wheaton College in Illinois. “I go to Willow Creek Community Church, which was a precursor to today’s megachurches, where I’m a small group leader myself. Vital churches, the ones that aren’t declining, are really emphasizing” small groups.

That’s also true in small rural churches like the one Dave Smith and his wife, Sue, attend in Erie, Michigan. The Smiths take part in Sunday school classes and Bible-study groups as well as a special book-discussion series they occasionally add to the mix at Erie United Methodist Church.

“Sue and I are always looking for ways to tell people about our church,” says her husband, a retired farmer who works part time for an agricultural cooperative. “When we’re telling people about our church, we usually say it’s a really good church and we’ve got a good pastor—but, until now, I guess it hadn’t occurred to me to point out that we’ve got some great classes and prayer and Bible-study groups. I know [the small groups] are something that’s meant a lot more to me in recent years.”

Nearly a decade into the long-term study of the evolution in the nation’s religious landscape, Pew’s continuing research is laying a baseline that over time will be able to provide historical context for the role of religion and how it affects social change in the United States.' 

Stability mingled with change

The Smiths’ experiences in their Michigan congregation illustrate some trends identified by Pew, but the couple also is resistant to other trends. For example, the Smiths are opposed to same-sex relationships and marriage, while overall the survey found that acceptance of gay marriage is rising significantly among religiously affiliated Americans.

St. John’s congregation in Oregon is similar, in many ways, to the Smiths’ church. Small-group activity is the lifeblood of the church—and, like the Smiths, St. John enjoys telling others about her congregation. The chief difference is that St. John’s church is fully accepting of gays.

As a teenager, St. John not only enjoyed attending church services; she credits that experience with giving her confidence as a young woman. But when she came out as a lesbian in her 30s, she and her partner, Kae, found themselves spiritual exiles. “We were living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we were finding that even there in the 1970s and 1980s most mainline churches were not welcoming,” says St. John. “So, we wound up exploring religious alternatives for a number of years.”

Flash forward to the couple’s discovery of an Episcopal church in Oregon, where St. John says she feels at home again in mainline Christianity. She and Kae, now her wife, are active in their parish. At home, the women regularly pray and enjoy reading from the Bible and other inspirational literature.

‘The meaning and purpose of life’

University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker, who studies American values, says he was especially interested in the report’s findings that Americans seem to be increasingly prone to spiritual reflection.

“What really stood out for me in this new report are a number of questions that try to get at the way Americans are wrestling on a deeper level with the meaning and purpose of life,” Baker says. “I’m really intrigued by these Pew findings that, to cite one example: Whether you’re religiously affiliated or not, there’s a growing number of people who experience a deep sense of wonder and awe about the universe.”

Baker says that his own research includes examination of how people can sometimes seem to hold conflicting values and that those people often are deeply thoughtful about existential questions. “I’ve found that people who strongly feel cultural contradictions are more likely to report that they think about the meaning and purpose of life,” he says. “And in this new Pew report, there’s a finding about that, too.” That’s an issue Pew researchers added to the 2014 survey, finding that 55 percent of all respondents say they frequently think about the meaning and purpose of life.

In North Carolina, Moreno says it’s certainly something she ponders. She grew up with such a strong commitment to her Catholic faith that she chose the study of Christianity as her undergraduate major and then completed a three-year master’s degree at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. “I really wrestled with so many things about this question of a calling,” she says. “I’m a strong feminist and—for example—as Catholics, we’re used to making the sign of the cross to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And, yes, Jesus certainly was male, but God is not. That’s just one example. I wish our tradition would explore more of the feminine nature of God.”

Moreno concluded that her vocation lies outside the walls of the church. She now performs most weekends as an actor at Renaissance festivals and writes her own material to highlight women as noble heroes.

“I see my generation in this Pew report,” says Moreno, who is 25. “Many of my friends had bad church experiences and are disconnected from organized religion—but that doesn’t mean they’ve given up on what they need for their own spiritual well-being. My friends didn’t leave the church to become atheists. They still want to find eternal peace.”

The experiences of Moreno, St. John, the Smiths, and Heller are windows into the personal stories behind the trends that the Pew report documents. Nearly a decade into the long-term study of the evolution in the nation’s religious landscape, Pew’s continuing research is laying a baseline that over time will be able to provide historical context for the role of religion and how it affects social change in the United States.

“We are seeing some expressions of generic spirituality that are up across the board, plus a lot of stability in traditional religious behavior—and yet, at the same time, the number of Nones is still growing,” says Pew’s Cooperman. “Why are these things happening? Where are these trends going? These are tough questions to explore—open questions that we need to pay attention to in our ongoing research.”