The standard narrative of American religious decline goes something like this: A few hundred years ago, European and American intellectuals began doubting the validity of God as an explanatory mechanism for natural life. As science became a more widely accepted method for investigating and understanding the physical world, religion became a less viable way of thinking—not just about medicine and mechanics, but also culture and politics and economics and every other sphere of public life. As the United States became more secular, people slowly began drifting away from faith.
Of course, this tale is not just reductive—it’s arguably inaccurate, in that it seems to capture neither the reasons nor the reality behind contemporary American belief. For one thing, the U.S. is still overwhelmingly religious, despite years of predictions about religion’s demise. A significant number of people who don’t identify with any particular faith group still say they believe in God, and roughly 40 percent pray daily or weekly. While there have been changes in this kind of private belief and practice, the most significant shift has been in the way people publicly practice their faith: Americans, and particularly young Americans, are less likely to attend services or identify with a religious group than they have at any time in recent memory.
If most people haven’t just logicked their way out of believing in God, what’s behind this shift in public religious practice, and what does the shift look like in detail? That’s a big question, one less in search of a straightforward answer than a series of data points and arguments constellated over time. Here’s one: Pew has a new survey out about the way people choose their congregations and attend services. While Americans on the whole are still going to church and other worship services less than they used to, many people are actually going more—and those who are skipping out aren’t necessarily doing it for reasons of belief.
There were at least three fascinating tidbits tucked into the results of the survey. First, people who report going to worship services less frequently now than they used to overwhelmingly say the logistics of getting there are the biggest obstacle. Second, a significant number of people who said they’re not part of any particular religion expressed mistrust of religious institutions, suggesting these organizations’ reputations have something to do with why people are dropping out of public religious participation.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the country seems to be split in half in terms of how often people get to services. Roughly 51 percent of Americans say they go to church or another worship service somewhere between once a month and multiple times per week, while 49 percent said they go rarely or never. But within that 51 percent, more than half of people said they go more often than they used to—in other words, about quarter of Americans have gotten more active in their religious communities in recent years, not less.
On the other hand, fewer than half of the people who rarely or never go to church said this has been a new decline in the last few years; a greater portion of that group said they’ve always stayed home on Sundays. All of this is a way of saying that, comparatively speaking, there’s more activity happening on the devout side of the spectrum than the drop-out side; this study suggests that even in a time of religion’s public decline, some people are experiencing religious revival.
According to the survey, about one-fifth of Americans now go to religious services a few times a year, but say they used to go a lot more. Roughly half of this group stopped going as often because of what the researchers called “practical issues”: They are too busy, have a crazy work schedule, or describe themselves as “too lazy” to go. Others said they just don’t care about attending services as much as doing other things.
While it’s easy to empathize with the hassle of trying to wake up and rally kids to go sit still for several hours every Sunday morning, this explanation is interesting for a slightly different reason: It suggests that many people view religious services as optional in a way they might not have in the past. Fifty or 60 years ago, churches, in particular, were a center of social and cultural life in America. For many people, that’s still the case, but the survey suggests that many people may be creating their social lives outside of a religious context—or perhaps forgoing that kind of social connection altogether.
The experience of those who are losing their religion shouldn’t obscure those who are finding it.
The sidelining of services may connect to another factor indicated in the survey: Among people who were raised religiously and who fell away from religion in adult life, roughly one-fifth said their dislike of organized religion was the reason. Another 50 percent said they stopped believing in the particular tenets of the faith they were raised in. Insofar as the decline in U.S. religious affiliation is an intellectual or philosophical story, it seems to be this: Fewer people are willing to sign on with the rules and reputations of institutions that promote faith. That doesn’t mean people don’t care about religious ideas or questions—many of those who are unaffiliated with a particular group still consider themselves “religious” or “seeking”—but they might not be as sold on the religious institutions themselves.
The experience of those who are losing their religion shouldn’t obscure the experience of those who are finding it, though. Twenty-seven percent of people in the survey say they’re attending services more often than they did in the past, cutting against the country’s overall decline in religious practice. This was most common among evangelical Protestants, three-quarters of whom say they go to church at least once or twice a month. Half of the people who said they’re going to services more often explained the change in terms of their beliefs: They’ve become more religious; they found that they need God in their life; they’ve gotten more mature as they’ve aged. By contrast, relatively few said they started going to church more often for practical reasons. Belief brings people to worship, it seems, while logistics keep people way.
The survey offers evidence that at least some Americans find worship services less relevant than other things they could be doing with their time, or perhaps they’re too hard to make time for. But the biggest takeaway is the variety of religious experience in America. Just as some people are drifting away from religion, others are moving toward it—and no matter what they might do on Sunday mornings, many people seem to find religious thinking still relevant to their lives.