F Rosa Rubicondior: Fall in US Religious Affiliation is Accelerating

Friday 19 April 2019

Fall in US Religious Affiliation is Accelerating

U.S. Church Membership Down Sharply in Past Two Decades.

A second poll in a few days has confirmed the sharp, and accelerating, decline in religious affiliation in the USA. Now only 50% of Americans identify themselves as belonging to any particular church, synagogue or mosque, compared to 68% or more between 1937 and the 1990s.

This fell by only 2% between the 1970s and 1990s, but in the last 20 years the decline has accelerated massively to 20% with more than half of that in the ten years up to 2018. Projecting this accelerating trend forward, religious affiliation in the USA should be below 30% within the next 15-20 years.

The decline in church membership mostly reflects the fact that fewer Americans than in the past now have any religious affiliation. However, even those who do identify with a particular religion are less likely to belong to a church or other place of worship than in the past.

Source: Lydia Saad - Catholics' Church Attendance Resumes Downward Slide | Gallup
This in part is reflected in declining attendance, most markedly amongst those self-identifying as Catholics, a trend which started well before the sexual abuse scandals, as shown in an earlier Gallup poll.

Although the proportion of Protestants attending church regularly has remained more or less stable at about 45%, the major change here has been in those Americans self-identifying as Protestants of one type or another. This has fallen from 71% in 1955 to 47% in the mid-2010s. While there has been a marked shift to 'none' in all Christian groups over this period, Hispanic immigration has tended to keep the Catholic figure up, masking any underlying trend.

*Protestants for 2014-2017 are defined as Protestants + Christians (nonspecific).

Although most of this decline is due to people opting for no religion, 7% of it is attributable to people who say they are religious but not affiliated to any organised religion. Sine the turn of the century, the number of Americans with no religious affiliation has more than doubled from 8% to 19%. Over the same period, the don't knows/refused to say has doubled from 2% to 4%. Although statistically small, this is consistent with more Americans now feeling less committed to any one faith or church. It is also consistent with a growing loss of faith but a reluctance still to admit to it.

It is clear then, that the nature of Americans' orientation to religion is changing, with fewer religious Americans finding membership in a church or other faith institution to be a necessary part of their religious experience.

*Millennials too young to be included in the 1998-2000 poll.

Although most of the Millenials were too young to be included in the 1998-2000 poll, their low figure at 42% church membership rate bodes poorly for organised religions in the USA and appears to be a major factor in the decline in affiliation. By contrast, 20 years ago, Generation X were at 62% at the same age as the Millennials in the 1016-2018 poll. This 20% difference marks the generational difference. The younger generation are far more likely to reject organised religion than their parents.

This 20% notional fall compares with falls of 9%, 10% and 8% for Traditionalists, Baby Boomers and Generation X respectively, over the same time.

The signs are that this already high rejection of religion by millennials is growing. Gallup polls consistently show an average of 33% with no religious affiliations in 2019 and even those Millennials who are religious are less likely to belong to church (57% compared to at least 65% for older generations).

Given that church membership, and religiosity in general, is greater among older adults, the emergence of an increasingly secular generation to replace far more religious older generations suggests the decline in U.S. church membership overall will continue.

In addition to age/generational difference, another significant factor in declining church attendance has been the marked decline in Catholics attending church at least once a week, from 74% in 1955 to 39% in 2014-17. Over the last 20 years self-identified Catholics who belonged to a church fell from 76% to 63%.

The last major factor, and one possibly having the most political significance for the future of America and American democracy is the difference between main party affiliations. Amongst Republican supporters, a party in which Evangelical Christians have been increasingly active and influential, the decline in church attendance fell only 8 percentage point from 77% to 69% in the last twenty years. By contrast, the figure for Democrats fell by 23 percentage points from 71% to 48%. Christianity, especially of the fundamentalist sects, is leading to a polarisation of politics in the USA, no longer of overtly economic/social lines but on religion/no-religion lines.

Ironically, given their current power and influence in US politics, the Republicans appear to have allied themselves to a failing cause and one which is being increasingly rejected, especially by the young.

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