inside of an empty church

The Changing Face of Religion in America

 October 13, 2020

Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day, once said, “We need to create a world where it is easier to be good.” But is there a chance that that world is not a religious one, at least the way we are familiar with religion? Will that be a result of the changing face of religion in America?

The Changing Face of Religion in America – Study by Ronald Ingelhart

In the article, Giving Up on God:  The Global Decline of Religion, it’s author, Ronald Ingelhart examines the changes that have occurred over the last years. Previously Inglehart had studied religion across 49 countries and found that America remained the exception. America was the one advanced country where religion continued to thrive. But repeat studies done from 2007 to 2017 found this was no longer the case. When asked to rate the importance of God in their lives, Americans went from 8.2 in 2007 on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being extremely important, to 4.6 in 2017. A significant drop.

“The most dramatic shift away from religion has taken place among the American public. From 1981 to 2007, the United States ranked as one of the world’s more religious countries, with religiosity levels changing very little. Since then, the United States has shown the largest move away from religion of any country for which we have data.” Ingelhart states. The United States now ranks as 11th least religious country.

That the number of “nones” – people saying they have no religious affiliation – has been increasing is well known. Pew Research Center findings from 2017 show that number has grown from 16% in 2007 to 26% in 2017, part of a global trend.

Why this Change?

Ingelhart gives three reasons for this change. Surprisingly enough, one reason he gives is politics. “Since the 1990s, the Republican Party has sought to win support by adopting conservative Christian positions on same-sex marriage, abortion, and other cultural issues. But this political appeal to religious voters has had the corollary effect of pushing other voters, especially those who are young and culturally liberal, away from religion.” Rather than religious beliefs influencing political views, political views have influenced religious views.

The second reason is the clergy sexual abuse crises in the Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church lost many followers in the wake of this crisis.

But the most significant reason according to Inglehart is the decline in infant mortality and the extension of life expectancy. Traditionally religion supported the role of fertility because of the need for many children. “But perhaps the most important force behind secularization is a transformation concerning the norms governing human fertility … During the twentieth century, a growing number of countries attained drastically reduced infant mortality rates and higher life expectancies, making these traditional cultural norms no longer necessary.” (Inglehart) Human life is less precarious hence humans are less needful of the existential comfort provided by belief in God.

“This phenomenon reflects the fact that as societies develop, survival becomes more secure: starvation, once pervasive, becomes uncommon; life expectancy increases; murder and other forms of violence diminish. And as this level of security rises, people tend to become less religious.” (Inglehart)

The exception to this is Muslim countries where religion continues to play a significant role and traditional beliefs in regards to sexuality and procreation remain.

Are We Becoming Less Moral?

Does this mean that the world is becoming less moral? On the contrary according to Inglehart. “As unexpected as it may seem, countries that are less religious actually tend to be less corrupt and have lower murder rates than more religious ones.” He goes on to state, “In fact, religious countries actually tend to be more corrupt than secular ones. The highly secular Nordic states have some of the world’s lowest levels of corruption, and highly religious countries, such as Bangladesh, Guatemala, Iraq, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, have some of the highest.”

Inglehart further states, “The people of religious countries are slightly more likely to condemn corruption than the people of less religious countries, but the impact of religion on behavior ends there.” How sad. It seems as economies improve, we are gaining a world where it is easier to be good, but religion doesn’t factor into that.

What’s a Religious Person to do?

Some propose that the coronavirus pandemic might increase our level of insecurity and push people back to God. Inglehart, however, believes this will not be enough to counter the trend aware from belief in God. “But that shift remains unlikely, because it would run counter to the powerful, long-term, technology-driven trend of growing prosperity and increased life expectancy that is helping push people away from religion.”

As a minister, this news is discouraging. In the 1970’s I travelled in Europe, marveling at the magnificent churches and cathedrals throughout the continent. However, for all of their beauty, I wondered, where was the worshiping community? Without lively communities, the building are empty, resounding gongs as Paul says. “If I speak in the tongues of men or angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor. 13:1) If I have majestic, beautiful buildings but have not love, then I am only a resounding gong.

I’ve been aware of the growing decline in church attendance for years. I’ve wondered about it, prayed about it, but received no direction about what can be done. What I wasn’t aware of was how this trend has been speeding up.

Where Do You Find Hope?

But there is hope. I find hope in Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence. There she  speaks about a 500 year rummage sale where we get rid of beliefs and rituals that are no long relevant. This ushers in a time of a great awakening.

Where do you find hope during these challenging times?

This is the first of a series of posts on the changing church in America. The second post will look at these reasons for hope. The third will explore how we navigate these times of change.

(Ingelhart’s book, Religion’s Sudden Decline,  is due out in January.)

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