Debating the decline of religion in America

For several decades now, sociologists have upheld the idea that when compared to other industrialized nations, the United States is uniquely religious. An argument for secularization which gained prominence in the 1960s was eventually refuted as Americans showed a remarkable religious vitality.

But some argue that new data about religion in America suggests that religion may indeed may on the decline. In a new book titled The Decline of American Religion, sociologist Mark Chaves looks at some of the evidence:

His conclusion: “The burden of proof has shifted to those who want to claim that American religiosity is not declining.”…

“…[E]very indicator of traditional religiosity is either stable or declining. This is why I think it is reasonable to conclude that American religion has in fact declined in recent decades — slowly, but unmistakably,” Chaves said.

Those indicators of decline, taken from General Social Survey data, include:

  • From 1990 to 2008, the percent of people who never attend religious services rose from 13 percent to 22 percent.
  • Just 45 percent of adult respondents born after 1970 reported growing up with religiously active fathers.
  • In the 1960s, about 1 percent of college freshmen expected to become clergy. Now, about three-tenths of a percent have the same expectation.
  • The percentage of people saying they have a great deal of confidence in leaders of religious institutions has declined from about 35 percent in the 1970s to about 25 percent today.

This particular data would seem to suggest a very slow decline – though Chaves himself seems careful to say that the data could also be interpreted to say that there is stability.

Sociologist Bradley Wright looks at some similar data in his book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites (read a description of the argument here) and comes to a slightly different conclusion. Wright suggests some of the people who now identify as non-religious simply don’t like to identify with organized religion and that many of them still say they have religious beliefs and practices. Wright also briefly argues that the number of committed religious people may not have changed; rather, “cultural” Christians may be those who are now identifying as non-religious.

Time will help settle this debate: in the United States, will religion continue to decline in future years and exactly what shape will this decline take? In the meantime, we will have to see how Chaves’ claim that the burden of proof is now on those who show there is not a decline plays out.

4 thoughts on “Debating the decline of religion in America

  1. Pingback: Twentysomething: “What people in the past might have gotten from church, I get from the Internet and Facebook” | Legally Sociable

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