The number of Americans who belong to a church continued a steady trends of decline, according to a new Gallup poll. This has many implications for American culture, including higher education, as I’ve noted previously.
Let me summarize the poll’s highlights, then offer some thoughts about what they portend for the nation’s future.
First, there’s a drop in the proportion of Americans who report belonging to a church or related institution. “In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.” Fewer than one half of us belong to a church etc., which is quite a change:
That’s for all Americans. Now, for the (albeit large) subset who explicitly claim a religious affiliation, their church membership has also declined significantly. “Between 1998 and 2000, an average of 73% of religious Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. Over the past three years, the average has fallen to 60%.”
Second, one might expect different patterns of religious behavior across different generations, and one would be right. However, the decline in church membership occurred across all demographics, even among the oldest.
The two major trends driving the drop in church membership — more adults with no religious preference and falling rates of church membership among people who do have a religion — are apparent in each of the generations over time. Since the turn of the century, there has been a near doubling in the percentage of traditionalists (from 4% to 7%), baby boomers (from 7% to 13%) and Gen Xers (11% to 20%) with no religious affiliation.
Every age dropped, except for the population without long enough a track record to tell. And they dropped by significant amounts, 9 to 12 points.
Some generational differences are present, as I said, and you can see them in the very high disaffiliation rates for the youngest Americans:
Currently, 31% of millennials have no religious affiliation, which is up from 22% a decade ago. Similarly, 33% of the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood have no religious preference…
[C]hurch membership is lower in each younger generation of conservatives than in each older generation — 51% of conservative millennials, 64% of conservative Gen Xers, 70% of conservative baby boomers and 71% of conservative traditionalists in 2018-2020 belong to a church.
Third, the demographic differences are fascinating, not least because church membership declined across every single one measured:
Gender, race, education, politics, geography, faith, marriage status – every single way Gallup slices it, Americans are stepping back from belonging to churches. We can find some interesting differences between groups, yes, like the way a majority of men no longer belong to a church, or the steeper decline among Catholics compared to Protestants.
So what does this mean for American culture and higher education in the future?
As I’ve said before, the trend could point to the long-predicted secularization of the United States, way behind other peer nations. That can suggest a reduction in religious influence across the board, from politics to popular culture and mores.
At the same time the trend of new religious movements and practices – splinter sects, Eat/Prey/Love spiritual exploration, cults, etc. – shows an energetic interest in some form of spiritual behavior. This could eventually lead to a rebound in the form of a new great awakening, or the creation of new groups or entire religions. Think of, for example, how spiritualism (as in contacting the dead, not spirituality) took off in the wake of the American Civil War.
One author suggests a challenge for civil society, if:
in the next 30 years, the United States will not have one dominant religion. “We have to start thinking about what the world looks like in terms of politics, policy, social service,” [Ryan] Burge said. “How do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked when Christians are half of what it was. Who picks up the slack, especially if the government isn’t going to?”
As I haven’t said before, I wonder about the impact of COVID in the short term and climate change in the long. The coronavirus hasn’t sparked a wave of religious fervor that I can detect. Perhaps it will have no net influence, or will speed the secularizing trend along.
Climate change, though… there are all kinds of possibilities here. Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Ministry [ahem] for the Future floated the idea of creating an anti-carbon religious movement. Deep Adaptation’s Jem Bendell asks us to think of a way of adapting to climate emergencies that focuses on love and support, which could easily describe a range of religious thought. Ibrahim Ozdemir argues that Islam has an environmentalism already present, as does, apparently, a forthcoming new book. Daniel DeLio calls on Catholicism to pick up the cause of climate mitigation. In contrast Tom Haymes pointed out that traditional faiths might appear pro-carbon, with their support of humans as masters of nature.
(I’m writing a little about this in Universities on Fire and would welcome any thoughts.)
And what does this trend say about the future of higher education?
To recap what I’ve said before: declining membership and affiliation threaten religious colleges and universities in their enrollment, staffing, alumni connections, and overall relevance. Religious studies as a field of research and teaching may similarly be constrained, and we’ve seen evidence of that in plummeting majors. Intergenerational tension might heighten along religious lines as a belief gap opens up between the youngest and older people belonging to a college or university.
I did float this other point:
Animosity towards education may take on a more deeply religious cast, as unbelief and higher ed remain linked. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Republicans deeply critical of universities and fearful of Godlessness combining the two more closely.
I’m not sure that’ll pan out now. Scroll back up to the demographics chart and look at the differences by education. College graduates are now more likely to belong to a church than those without a BA/BS. That flies in the face of the conventional wisdom holding that college drives faithful students into apostasy and atheism.
There’s more to be said, but I’m working on deadlines and am more interested in your thoughts and observations. The comment box stands ready!