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.