America, Land of Unbelieving Believers
With every passing year, traditional religious belief continues its trend of steady decline in the United States. According to the latest Gallup Values and Beliefs poll, a record low of 81 percent of American adults believe in God. That’s a slip of 6 percentage points since 2017, the last time Gallup conducted the poll, which found 87 percent of respondents affirming belief in God. As traditional beliefs wane and a new generation increasingly makes its way in the world without them, a new American religious landscape is becoming visible—and it has features both familiar and unexpected.
“What is changing profoundly is the decline of traditional, denominational religious organizations, especially among young adults,” Notre Dame sociologist and author Christian Smith wrote in an email about the poll results. Within Christianity, the decline affects both liberal and conservative denominations. Scholars, journalists, and sociologists of religion have offered a range of explanations for the drop. While simple demographics account for part of the change—as young “Nones” come of age, they are beginning to have children of their own, whereas religious couples are having fewer children than their parents and grandparents did—politics have also played a role, especially for those on the left. According to Gallup’s report, Democrats have seen the sharpest decline in belief in God while Republican rates of belief remain extremely high:
The groups with the largest declines are also the groups that are currently least likely to believe in God, including liberals (62%), young adults (68%) and Democrats (72%). Belief in God is highest among political conservatives (94%) and Republicans (92%), reflecting that religiosity is a major determinant of political divisions in the U.S.
David Campbell, coauthor of Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics, says that “Many Americans—especially young people—see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically. . . . Young people are especially allergic to the perception that many—but by no means all—American religions are hostile to LGBTQ rights.”
But while the Religious Right has played a role in the waning of traditional Christianity in the United States, the disillusioned young scions of conservative Catholic and Protestant families aren’t emptying the pews at home to fill them in more progressive church spaces. Liberal Christians traditions are in a faster freefall than conservative ones.
Notwithstanding the Episcopal Church’s progressive stances on a number of issues that align with the mores of liberal young Americans—the denomination ordains trans people, blesses same-sex marriages, and supports abortion rights—its membership and Sunday attendance have plummeted. Far from picking up large numbers of disaffected post-evangelicals during the Trump years, the church experienced a net loss of almost 170,000 members between 2016 and 2020. These numbers reflect a decades-long trend: In October 2020, the denomination’s own news service reported that “membership is down 17.4 [percent] over the last 10 years.” The average age of the average Episcopalian and the lack of generational replacement have contributed to an overall picture that prompted one scholar to say, “The Episcopal Church will be dead in the next 20 years.” (He later wrote to clarify and mildly soften his position: “They will very likely be on life support.”) It’s been a steep slope: The denomination has produced more American presidents than any other, a reminder of the prestige and power it enjoyed as recently as one or two generations ago.
The story of decline is consistent across denominations with similarly liberal theological views on gender and sexuality, such as the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ. Likewise, liberal seminaries and divinity schools across the country have also faced tough times, with some shutting down and others downsizing or even merging to avoid closure.
Progressive social stances and liberal beliefs do not appear to have helped these churches to attract younger people with similar convictions to join them in significant numbers. In attempting to explain the mainline’s troubles with declining membership, economist Laurence Iannaccone argued—in 1994, when the longer trend had already been apparent for many years—that part of the problem for the liberal churches is low expectations for members: They require little in the way of time, resources, and support, and are hesitant to place strong moral expectations or theological boundaries on them. In Iannaccone’s view, “Strictness makes organizations stronger and more attractive because it reduces free riding. It screens out members who lack commitment and stimulates participation among those who remain.” Likewise, more conservative critics have long argued that the key problem for liberal churches is that they lack “a religious reason for [their] own existence”; combining this feature with their emphasis on social causes leaves them looking nigh-indistinguishable from any other advocacy group, let alone one another.
The urgency with which mainline churches pursue social justice does not extend to traditional missionary work, which could be another factor in their waning memberships. In his study of early twentieth-century foreign missionaries and their children, UC Berkeley’s David Hollinger writes that one of the unintended consequences of liberal Protestantism’s embrace of multiculturalism was a concomitant abandonment of proselytizing. In his view, the religious tolerance of the mainline “advanced the larger process of religious liberalization and the attendant growth of post-Protestant secularism.” It could be said that the commitment to inclusivity with respect to other faiths, traditions, and points of view became so total within the mainline that it resulted in a final self-abnegation.
Younger Americans are leaving their churches at a faster rate than has been recorded in similar polls previously—but the question of where they’re ending up is complicated.
“The U.S. is not undergoing secularization of a type that leads to hard-core rationalist, materialist, disenchanted atheism, at least in the near term,” Smith, the Notre Dame sociologist, wrote. “If anything, the broader culture has become re-enchanted. Everybody and their cousin now wants to be ‘spiritual’ and to practice ‘mindfulness.’”
Polls of American religiosity give unaffiliated participants more options than simply “Atheist” and “Agnostic.” On the question of religious preference, Pew offers “Nothing in particular,” and Gallup’s question about religious affiliation includes the option of selecting “None”—the negation that gave rise to a new sociological category.
But “Nones” are not simply agnostics or atheists by another name. A growing subsection of Americans positively identifies as “spiritual but not religious,” a catch-all of personal religious orientations that can entail anything from cultivating private Christian faith apart from an ecclesial tradition to an open agnosticism inflected with principles derived from the practice of yoga—and much more besides. So although explicit atheism has made modest gains among Americans in recent years, it is not the philosophical upshot for most Americans who are leaving their churches, and it’s wrong to assume that a person who identifies as a “None” is a person bereft of religious conviction.
The decline into irreligion of a nation of natural believers has a strange and unpredictable character. In fact, some observers have argued that what we are witnessing is not the decline of American religion at all, but rather a “remix.”
Tara Isabella Burton, in her book Strange Rites, argues that the decline of confessional Christianity in America has been taken to imply the waning of religion in the country more generally. But religion is as strong as ever, in Burton’s view; you just won’t find it in church. Rather, comic book conventions, yoga studios, cyberspace, and a myriad of similar destinations have become the essential sites of a new American religious culture. Carrying forward some of the ideas of nineteenth-century French sociological thinker Émile Durkheim, Burton takes religion to be less about creeds and dogma than community and meaning making. This religiosity finds its expression “through the collective energy of its adherents, a process [Durkheim] calls ‘collective effervescence,’ a shared intoxication participants experience when they join together in a symbolically significant, socially cohesive action.”
Burton cites Harry Potter as a paradigmatic example of this “collective effervescence.” Children born to Potter fans are being christened Albus and Hermione in honor of Rowling’s characters; their Hogwarts-tattoo-sleeved parents derive moral teachings, ethical notions, and a larger message from the books, which amount to a “foundational text” for their lives—just as scripture may have been to their own parents. This quasi-religious devotion to the imaginative universe of Harry Potter helps explain the otherwise unaccountable ferocity of the backlash to J.K. Rowling: Her controversial public statements about trans women have elicited something akin to a crisis of faith among devotees who may have first learned about the importance of inclusion and acceptance in the Potter novels. Fans of the fantasy series are not unique in the degree to which they give themselves over to their enthusiasm. Yale religion scholar Kathryn Lofton has long argued that the obsessive fervor generated by celebrities like Oprah, Britney Spears, and BTS has elements of organization and function that appear far more similar to those of religious communities than of more pedestrian fandoms.
But these tendencies offer a brief glimpse of a much larger emerging religious landscape. Thanks to TikTok, Instagram, and the pandemic that kept everyone inside and on their phones, astrology has made a significant apparent comeback with Millennials and Zoomers. Promising a more authentic and spiritually attuned feminism, Wicca and Neopaganism have grown “from 134,000 [adherents] in 2001 to nearly 2 million [in 2021].” Young men, some of them nervous about any kind of feminism, have elevated Canadian psychologist and self-help writer Jordan Peterson to the status of a mystical guru. There is the “cult of Peloton,” known for its collective affirmations and liturgical calls to fitness. Followers of QAnon could be described as “initiates” because of the relationship they develop to an esoteric body of beliefs. The Disney community treats a visit to Disney World as a secular pilgrimage. And the dominant contemporary form of progressive social consciousness—“wokeness,” as critics call it—has features that resemble Burton’s notion of “remixed religion.” From calls to atone for unearned privilege (original sin, if you squint), to chants and kneeling as forms of protest, to the targeting of dissenting opinions for conveying heretical forms of thought, the parallels with elements of Christian history, theology, and practice are suggestive. Columbia University linguist John McWhorter is a well-known proponent of this view, arguing that an “anthropologist would see no difference in type between Pentecostalism and this new form of antiracism.”
The predominance of “remixed” religion, religion-substitutes, religion-alternatives, and spiritualized hobbies among younger Americans attests to a basic truth about our country’s culture: We are natural believers. While scholars may debate the meaning and significance of any of these examples—and deeper questions about what constitutes religion as a unique form of social life—the durably high level of spiritual enthusiasm is a feature of the culture of the United States that sets it apart from that of secular Europe. In its many new forms, American religion may very well turn out to be with us always, even unto the end of the age.