The role of religious buildings in the decline in religiosity in the US during COVID-19

New data from Pew Research suggests religiosity declined during COVID-19:

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The percentage of Americans who identify as Christians now stands at 63%, down from 65% in 2019 and from 78% in 2007. Meanwhile, 29% of Americans now identify as having no religion, up from 26% in 2019 and 16% in 2007, when Pew began tracking religious identity.

Many places of worship closed during the pandemic—some voluntarily, others as a result of state and local social-distancing rules—and in-person church attendance is roughly 30% to 50% lower than it was before the pandemic, estimates Barna Group, a research firm that studies faith in the U.S. Millions of Americans moved to worshiping online, and questions linger about how many will come back in person.

A previous Pew survey, in January, found that a third of Americans said their faith had grown stronger during the pandemic—the highest share of any developed country. But overall, religious engagement trended downward at roughly the same rate as before the pandemic, according to the new Pew survey.

These findings are likely part of a longer trend away from religion that was already underway before COVID-19 hit. Sociologists and others have noted the rise of “religious nones,” particularly among younger Americans. Religion in the United States can often be individualistic and anchored less in religious traditions or denominations.

Yet, I wonder if COVID-19 presented a unique disruption to religiosity as it limited interaction with religious buildings. Sociologist Robert Brenneman and I discuss the impact of religious buildings on worship and community in Building Faith. We argue that the religious building and the ways that exterior and interior features are designed influence people who interact with them. The buildings do not just reflect religious values or doctrine; they help shape religious experiences.

When COVID-19 stopped people from being in buildings that influenced their faith, did this register as a loss and/or lead to a decline in religious engagement? With today’s technology and the ways that many congregations pivoted to online options, people can still engage with faith communities. Yet, that experience through Zoom or other video options is not the same as being in a physical structure that reinforces faith experiences. Even in congregations that tend to downplay the role of space, they still try to shape the religious building space in ways that encourages particular emotions and experiences.

Can religious faith in the United States survive as an enterprise free from the confines of a religious building? I have my doubts. While buildings themselves are unlikely to reverse the decline in religiosity in the last decade or so, they have a role in shaping communal and individual faith.

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