Is your church looking less crowded these days? You’re not alone.
For families across the country, Sunday mornings have long meant one thing: church. The ceremony begins as worshipers line the pews to sing songs of praise before giving an offering and taking communion. Then all eyes are on the preacher as they point to a scripture that, depending on the kind of week we’ve had, weighs on our conscience or gives us some perspective. Finally, all heads are bowed in prayer for the sick and those in need. For many, these practices are an unmissable ritual — but data shows this group is shrinking.
Growing up in rural Texas, there was no question where I could be found on the Lord’s Day — I was with my family, dressed in my Sunday best (butterfly clips and Mary Janes) at the local Church of Christ. Now that I’m an adult and I have a choice, I no longer attend worship or identify with any faith in particular. As it turns out, I’m not alone.
Today, nearly one in four Americans are unaffiliated with any religion. Some of them never felt all that strongly about their faith, while others made an active choice to step back. To use the church I used to attend as an example: About 64 percent of Americans call themselves Christian, and while that might seem like a lot, 50 years ago that number was 90 percent, according to a study from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
“It’s an undeniable trend, and you can see it across a variety of different data sets,” says University of Oklahoma sociologist Samuel Perry. “People are going to church less, and what’s even more significant is they’re increasingly less likely to identify with any religion.”
Given that this is a fundamental shift in how Americans think about their lives existentially, it’s worth probing further to understand why it’s happening, what it means for the future, and how religious leaders are responding.
Americans are increasingly leaving their religion
It has been said that the Christian church isn’t a building, but rather a body of believers united in Christ. But could that body be disappearing?
According to a Deseret/Marist poll last year, 40 percent of Americans reported attending a religious service once or twice a month, a drop from 52 percent in 2011. And only 16 percent of those surveyed said religion is the most important part of their lives, which is down from 20 percent a decade ago, according to a May study from the Public Religion Research Institute.
This trend coincides with the rise of “nones,” a term for those who claim no religious affiliation — and who seem to resist labeling themselves in any particular way. While atheists (who don’t believe in God) and agnostics (who don’t believe it’s possible to know whether God exists) are included in this category, Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau says most Americans who fall under this umbrella don’t even claim those non-religious identifiers.
But whatever they call themselves, they’re in growing company: In 2021, a survey from the Pew Research Center found that 29 percent of Americans don’t identify with any faith, which is up from 16 percent of the country in 2007. (That’s not to say that religious belief and practice can’t exist without a label: Roughly 60 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans still believe in God to some degree.)
The rise of “nones” could be reflective of a shift in cultural mores at large. Melissa Deckman, CEO of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, says people might be more comfortable now with sharing the fact that they aren’t particularly religious. “There’s less social pressure now to identify with a religious faith,” she says. “More Americans are probably going to identify as non-religious, but I don’t think religion is going to go away completely.”
Why Christianity and other religions are declining in the U.S.
There isn’t a clear reason why some Americans stopped going to church — it can vary from person to person. For example, some may find religion’s traditional hierarchies and rules to be too antiquated, or maybe they weren’t raised in a religious household to begin with. For others, it could’ve been a church scandal or traumatic event that sparked a crisis of faith.
But we do know that there’s a general disenchantment with religion as a whole.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 56 percent of respondents said they left their faith because they just stopped believing in its teachings. This sentiment is especially felt among some religions more than others — one-third of the people who reported leaving their religion were Catholics. Contrast that with non-Christian religions like Judaism, in which just 5 percent have left their faith.
Politics is another factor driving people away from religion. “The polarized political environment in which the Republican Party is seen as the party of organized religion and the Democratic Party is perceived to be the party of secular America has meant that partisans — both Democrats and Republicans alike — bring their religious behaviors and affiliations in line with their political affiliations,” says Michele Margolis, who’s the author of From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and Political Environment Shape Religious Identity.
This exodus is particularly true for people who tend to be more liberal: 30 percent of people told PRRI that they were distancing themselves from conservative religion because they were turned off by some of its negative teachings about or treatment of the LGBTQ+ community.
While nonreligious Americans tend to be younger and more Democratic-leaning, there are plenty of people leaving religion who don’t fit that stereotype. The average age of a “none” is 43, and about one-third of them are people of color, according to Ryan Burge, who’s a research director at Faith Counts, an organization that seeks to “promote the value of all faith.”
The implications of a less religious society
Nonreligious voters could dramatically change American politics as we know it. After all, the Democratic Party is already recognizing this growing group: In 2019, the Democratic National Committee called on its members to recognize and celebrate the contributions of nonreligious Americans, who make up one-third of the party’s voters. “At some point, these ‘nones’ are going to find their voice, and they will radically reshape American politics,” says Berlinerblau.
That sentiment has drawn a heated response from those on the religious right: Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor who has close ties to former President Trump, accused Democrats of admitting that they’re a “godless party.” This was hardly a new argument — for years, conservative Christian leaders have been repeating similar claims, warning that the U.S. is being led down an “evil path.”
But mainstream preachers and researchers have pushed back against this rhetoric. “There’s no plausible data that suggests that we’re going to become less moral as a society if more and more people identify as non-religious,” Berlinerblau tells us.
What’s more, there might actually be some benefits to being a less religious society, according to Perry, a sociologist from Oklahoma. This starts on a personal level for those who value a sense of self-reliance over depending on an external deity, but it can also extend to fostering a more equitable nation overall. “There aren’t as many traditional hierarchies in social relationships and stigmatized arrangements in a more secular society,” Perry says.
Unsurprisingly, this growing group of non-believers isn’t being met with the same enthusiasm from religious leaders. “People are leaving the church, and that should be a wake-up call for all of us,” says Rev. Albert Mitchell Moore, an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio. In response to this trend, he has been focusing more efforts on recruiting younger congregants and finding more creative ways to reach them outside the confines of a church building, whether virtually or in a social setting like a coffee shop.
Ultimately, Moore thinks that religion is good for all of us, even if we don’t follow one in particular. Studies have shown that religious attendance once or more per week adds an extra seven years to your life, while other research has shown religious involvement is linked to lower depression and the risk of mental health disorders.
“We want to be about something bigger than ourselves,” says Moore. “That’s why college sports are so big — we get a sense of identity, purpose, and meaning from it, but ultimately those places will still leave us hungry.”
Though there have been some dramatic shifts in cultural attitudes about faith, the reality is that a large majority of Americans are still religious, and religion as an institution will continue to be relevant even if congregations are getting smaller. “While religious disaffiliation is on the rise, I don’t think that’s the whole story,” says Deckman. “There are many Americans for whom religion remains a really important part of their lives.”