The United States is often viewed as a highly religious country. Analysis by Duke University professor Mark Chavez found that since the 1980s, large majorities of Americans say they know god exists (64%), pray multiple times a week (69%), and believe in heaven (86%). While these kinds of beliefs and practices have held steady, there have been a few notable changes.
An Increasing Number of Americans are “Un-Churched”
Starting in the 1990s, surveys began to show increases in the number of Americans who say they have no religious preference or affiliation. In 1991, 7 percent of adults stated that they had no religious preference. In 2014, polling conducted by Pew Research found that the share of Americans who said they are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular, had grown to almost 23 percent. There are now 56 million religiously unaffiliated Americans.
Often referred to as “nones,” this group now outnumbers the share of Americans who are Catholic or Protestant. In terms of size, “nones” are second only to evangelical Christians. While the number of “nones” has grown, Pew Research found that the number of Christians has declined by 7 percentage points in just the last seven years. Today, about 71 percent of Americans say they are Christian.
Early analysis of this trend by sociologists Mike Hout and Claude Fisher found that an important factor related to the growth of religiously unaffiliated Americas was the rise of the religious right. As conservative politics became increasingly bound up with churches, some moderates and liberals started taking a political stance and stopped self-identifying with organized religion.
More Americans Say They are “Spiritual but Not Religious”
Yet, just because a person is not a member of an organized church, doesn't necessarily mean they are entirely secular. In his book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, professor Chavez points out that religiously unaffiliated Americans often report believing in God. In fact, Chavez notes that as a growing number of Americans have become “un-churched,” more and more Americans consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”
Other data supporting an increase in a diffuse kind of spirituality is the significant rise in the number of “nones” who believe in life after death, increasing from 48 percent in the 1970s to 60 percent today.
These trends are especially pronounced among young people. An increasing share of people under age 40 are reporting that they are “spiritual but not religious” and more Millennials are shying away from affiliating with mainstream religions.
Religiously Active People are Now More Conservative
Another emerging trend is that those who are the most religiously active tend to be more conservative. When looking at church attendance and ideology, professor Chavez found that in the 1970s, those who were more active were only a little more conservative than those who were less religiously active. By the 2000s things had changes dramatically, with those who attended church more frequently (i.e. at least weekly) being twice as likely to report that they are very conservative. Moreover, among those who are religiously active an increasing percentage (40%) are white evangelicals.
Americans Have Lost Confidence in the Church
A big change has been a disillusionment with organized religion. In 1973 a Gallop survey found that about 66 percent of those polled had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the church/organized religion. Since then, confidence has steadily eroded as sexual abuse and televangelist scandals led to a decline in trust. In 2015, only 42 percent said they had a high degree of confidence. As a result, the church has dropped down in the ranking of institutions that Americans trust. Organized religion now ranks fourth – behind the military, small business, and the police.
The Future of Belief in America
If the trends outlined here continue, in a few decades the landscape of faith in America will look very different. Fewer Americans will be Christian. More Americans will be “nones.” And increasingly, spiritual journeys will take place outside the walls of mainstream churches.
While Americans may change the way they think about and experience their faith, there isn’t evidence showing that Americans are rapidly giving up beliefs about the existence of God or in the afterlife. In the future then, Americans will still believe.