American church membership and religious affiliation continue to decline

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:

religion -church membership - Gallup 2021 April

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%.”

religion -church memership for those with religious affiliation-Gallup 2021 April

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.

religion -church membership by generation - Gallup 2021 April

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:

religion -church membership by demographics - Gallup 2021 April

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!


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6 Responses to American church membership and religious affiliation continue to decline

  1. Ruben Nelson says:

    Thanks, Bryan,
    I live in that country just North of you. a few quick comments:
    1. The trend you are commenting on is one of the few trends where the USA lags Canada. Normally, we lag your trends by 3-15 years.
    2. In Canada today, a similar poll would not even be commented on. Just a ho hum, BUA.
    3. A significant finding is that in the USA, the RC church lags conservative Christians. Given how many RC Christians are Spanish speaking from more traditional cultures, this is interesting. It speaks to the grip of conservative churches on their people.
    4. The poll findings map on to the culture war in the USA: folks who are willing, if not always happily, to move along with the deep cultural evolution in our Modern cultures VS those who will defend their inherited identity (white, male dominated, oblivious to the tide of voices who now want in as agents of cultural change) to the death, if need be.
    5. Expect, over the next generation, serious infighting and splits within the conservative churches. The fight will mirror the wider struggle in the culture — folks who are willing to move on, at least a little VS those who would rather die than change.
    6. The USA will not become a more peaceable culture over the next few decades.
    says he as if he knows what he is talking about.

  2. Deborah says:

    As a prof at a Christian college I would say that there is a core of grads that will stay in the church but interpret church in new ways: online congregations, smaller house or “backyard” churches, or social action churches ( service project one Sunday per month feeding or serving the community in some way ) instead of a traditional service. Yes, the Bible majors and dept. has shrunk and are replace by faith based restorative justice/ criminology or trauma informed education majors. Sports and musical theatre still big that attract many non churches or non believers. We have needed to adapt the faith based emphasis for all types of students and still provide core courses for our spiritually committed students. Not easy task.

  3. Joe says:

    Fine with this Deist. I go to a local Episcopal church because it is tolerant of different faiths, open-minded, and not dogmatic. The minister is a woman and a personal friend. I am sick of guilt, intolerance, male righteousness, and doctrinal arrogance that drove me away from Catholicism years ago.

    As for your final point, I agree. There is already a conservative and religious backlash against higher education underway. I tell my students that university education is our best defense against a new dark age. We must keep our guard up and hope that actuarial events will work their magic over the next couple of decades.

  4. I’d be interested in seeing how numbers break down rural/suburban/urban

  5. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    Agree: We are facing “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 …” As churches decline, the seminaries are closing down at an alarming rate (on a pastor’s salary, who can afford it?).

    But this decline also matches other noticeable declines — marriage, family, civic associations (I would add, public schools) — of social institutions.
    The fact is, society is changing. Nothing is forever, apparently not even the Church.
    This does NOT bode well for higher education (or liberal education, humanities) as an institution.

    Compare the impact of Covid-19 on worship services and classroom instruction — both have been devastated, and, more importantly, transformed. Society is changing, and so are its institutions.

  6. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    Another casualty here is John Dewey’s vision of democracy, more specifically his communitarian associationalism that locates the moral and ethical backbone of society in its community groups and associations. (See Karen G. Evans, Reclaiming John Dewey: Democracy, Inquiry, Pragmatism, and Public Management, Administration & Society, 2000)

    Professional and business communities were, in Dewey’s view, to provide guard-rails for themselves and their members that were necessary to protect the public and the public interest.

    Instead, the associations that have survived are predatory guilds, exclusionary and monopolist. Professionals and businesses are more like roving gangs that extract wealth and commitment from those they fall upon in the darkness. Technology has accelerated and expanded rent-seeking across all fronts, in all sectors.

    Reading Reclaiming John Dewey now, twenty-years after it was written, shows us how far from the Deweyan ideal we have fallen, or strayed, but not why this has occurred. The only thing remaining is the intensity of “service” rhetoric broadcasted by media, new and old.

    “John Dewey’s death in 1952, in his 93rd year, marked the end of an era in American education, American philosophy, and American liberalism … leaving behind … 37 volumes of edited text.” His persistent push for reform, and the ideas that was based on, has all but been forgotten. The trust that Dewey put in associations and democracy was badly misplaced; and perhaps worst of all, there is no hope of “reclaiming John Dewey.”

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