Why a Modest Decline in Religious Belief is Important

Daniel A. Cox July 8, 2022

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Another poll, another record broken in the country’s continuing religious descent. A new Gallup poll finds that 81 percent of Americans say that they believe in God, representing a six point drop over the last five years.

By every conceivable measure, America today is less religious than it was a few decades earlier. Nearly three in 10 Americans claim no formal religious identity. Fewer than half the public regularly shows up for religious services each week. Gallup, which has been tracing religious trends for nearly 100 years, found in 2021 that for the first time in the history of its polling,  less than half the public are members of church or religious organization. With every new poll we seem to break new records.

Amidst this obvious religious decline, why is a drop in religious belief newsworthy? Considering that roughly eight in 10 Americans still affirm their belief in God, one could argue that this is proof of the country’s enduring religious vitality, rather than one more sign of religious decline.
But Gallup’s finding is notable because it challenges claims that America’s religious decline is mostly if not entirely the result of public disaffection with organized religion.

Earlier work suggested that falling rates of religious membership or affiliation were divorced from personal spirituality and religiosity that were largely unaffected by these trends. Rather, these scholars suggested that the decline of religious affiliation, membership, and participation reflected a general dissatisfaction with organized religion, not God. They argued that America is fast becoming a nation of unchurched believers – Americans who consider themselves personally religious but do not attend services or participate in public religious life.

Gallup’s new poll is important because it contradicts these arguments. And the results almost surely understate the actual decline in belief. Gallup’s question, which offers only two options, “yes” or “no,” is obscenely simplistic. It does not account for the centrality of God in a person’s life or measure the degree of doubts that Americans hold about it. I’ve previously noted that when it comes to God, feelings of uncertainty are incredibly common, both among believers and nonbelievers. Far more Americans report being uncertain in their religious beliefs when offered an opportunity to share them with a pollster.

The generational divisions in religious belief are also incredibly important. In a recent survey, we found that about three in 10 (28 percent) young adults say they do not believe in God. Doubting is also much more common among young adults. Only 39 percent of young people say they believe in God with complete certainty, compared to roughly six in ten (58 percent) seniors. Of course, our religious beliefs are subject to change, but recent evidence suggests that by the time we reach adulthood, American’s views about religion are set. And whatever else happens in their lives, young adults today are starting from much lower religious baseline than previous generations.

The higher rates of doubting and disbelief among young adults makes sense when you consider that they are far less involved in religion, and have had weaker formative experiences with it. When we’re separated from formal religious practice and regular participation in a religious community, our religious beliefs atrophy. Research has consistently found that religious bonds, for instance, affinity to one’s religious congregation or denomination and religious beliefs, are stronger when we are embedded in those communities. And religious diversity—despite creative claims to the contrary—does not strengthen religious commitments.  When isolated from religious communities, doubts emerge and religion can become less central to our daily lives. In a recent survey, we found that 88 percent of Americans who attend religious services more than once a week say they thought about God every day. In contrast only 10 percent of those who never attend services say they think about God every day.

A better explanation for what’s happening then is that personal religious belief is a lagging indicator. Without a structure of relationships to support it, our religious beliefs become unmoored and less relevant to our busy everyday lives.

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