47. Is the United States becoming Less Religious?
Last week we talked about pressures of secularization that have kept Israel from becoming more religious. Assuming that similar forces are at work in all developed societies, is the United States becoming more secular?
Yes. Recent surveys confirm a sharp drop in religious affiliation and observance. In the last decade alone, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian has declined by a full 12 percent, according to the highly respected Pew Research Center.
In perspective, the Pew Center recorded 77 percent identifying as Christian in 2009, and 65 percent in 2019. The decline was noted both among Protestants and Catholics. It was not a result of the growth of non-Christian religions, which registered only a modest uptick, from 5 to 7 percent (with the Jewish share remaining consistent at about 2 percent).
So what accounts for the relative numerical decline of professed Christians? Most of it is explained by the increase of those with no particular religion: atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated, whose share of the population rose from 17 percent to 26 percent during the decade.
Data on attendance at religious services confirm this pattern. in 2009 over half said they attended services at least once or twice a month. By 2019 this had dropped to well under half.
The demographic shift, as one would suspect, correlates with age. Over 80 percent of those above 80 identified as Christians, while only 49 percent of the Millennials (born between 1881-1996) did so. And only one-third of the Millennials attended services at least once or twice a month.
Since the 2019 Pew report appeared, a more recent survey has also recorded a sharp reversal, among Protestants, between "mainline" and "evangelical" Christians. The evangelical, more fundamentalist, denominations had come to outnumber the older established churches. But, within the relative shrinking of Protestant Christianity as a whole, this was reversed in the latest numbers.
As reported in the 2020 Census of American Religion of the Public Religion Research Institute, adherence to the mainline denominations had grown from 13 percent to 16 percent of the entire public since 2016, while only 14 percent identified with the evangelical churches. This also represents a huge proportional drop since 2006, when in a similar survey fully 23 percent had identified themselves as evangelicals.
Not surprisingly, once again, this decline as a proportion of the population was correlated with the age structure of the two groups. The evangelical population was notably older; clearly younger age groups are choosing either not to affiliate or, if they still identify as Christian, to choose mainline churches more often.
In short, neither the United States nor Israel is an exception to the patterns of life as they have developed in modern industrialized societies. In both cases, established religions face the challenge of adapting to a changing landscape.