Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Sunday Mornin' comin' down

So Alternet (via Salon) tells me, once again, that religion is in sharp decline in America, and it's all over but the crying as we are now a "post-religious" country, and soon atheism will rule the land with Richard Dawkins as our acknowledged savior.

Okay, some of that might not be true.

But via Thought Criminal I get this link, and this fascinating chart.  It seems that, as of 1906, 41% of the population (per the Census Bureau) considered themselves members of a religious organization (I'll presume this is self-reported, rather than derived from an analysis of church records).  92 years later, that percentage was 70%.

And I'm supposed to believe, in 17 years, that number has plummeted to a record low?  Or at least low enough to indicate we are all atheists now, or will be by the time my grandchildren are around?

Yeah, right.  So, what were we in 1906?

I've said before that the massive increase in church attendance after World War II was an historical aberration, and that, if anything, we are slowly returning to a normal level in the population.  Per the information at that link, we are returning very slowly, indeed.  You can see in the charts there that the percentage of the population claiming religious membership leaps forward in 1940, a climb that is unabated until about 1970, and begins to rise again in 1980.  It's probably true, as Alternet says, that fundamentalism is loosening the death grip on American society it seemed to have in the last decade or so (although neo-atheists still insist it is being rammed down our throats somewhere, somehow), but that's hardly the same thing as saying we are all "nones" now.

Let me just point out the Salon/Alternet article makes much of the fact that "unaffiliated" is the second largest category of the population in some states.  In 1906, it was the largest category in the nation, and stayed that way until sometime in the 1950's.  What Baby Boomers have grown up with is the aberration, not the norm.  But that norm hadn't shifted much by the end of the century:

At the end of the century, eight of every ten Americans were Christian, one adhered to another religion, and one had no religious preference. The non- Christians included Jews, Buddhists, and a rapidly growing number of Muslims

10% had "no religious preference," which is not the same thing as no religious belief.  If that has changed dramatically in only 14 years, where are all the empty churches and synagogues and mosques?  A mere addition of 1% would be over 3 million people.  Surely that would impact the number of people attending worship, even if the percentage of those attending worship didn't change.

Speaking of which, in 1939, 43% reported attending worship regularly; by 1988, that number was at 40%.  It climbed to around 50% in the late 50's,  but pretty much stayed around the 40% mark for half a century.    The shifts over that time are barely statistically significant.   That seems to be a fairly culturally set number.  I see no reason to expect it has plummeted since 1998.

There have been changes in American attitudes toward religion:

As recently as the 1920s, church membership was routinely inherited and implied obedience to a set of behavioral rules. Over the years, church membership became elective and behav ioral rules lost their importance.

American religion lost much of its authoritative character. The mainline Protestant churches no longer applied their traditional sanctions against fornication, illegitimacy, divorce, homosexuality, suicide, and blasphemy. The majority of Catholics favored and practiced birth control, contrary to church doctrine.

The growth of evangelical denominations committed to biblical literalism can be interpreted as a reaction against this general trend, as the 1999 figures in the two charts suggest (see page 108). But even in that conservative sector of the religious spectrum, some old prohibitions—including those against fornication, illegitimacy, drinking, dancing, gambling, homosexuality, abortion, and illegal drug use—often appeared less enforceable by the end of the century.
But those changes reflect changes in culture, not the authority of religion.  Many of the strictures that were less enforceable in 1999 have become even less enforceable 15 years later, especially with the rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage.  But shifts in church or culture, if anything, have still changed worship attendance (decline in attendance to Catholic Mass is attributed to the changes wrought by Vatican II) only slightly.  The fact that the attendance number is so steady indicates the role of religion in individual lives hasn't changed much in, well, my lifetime, at least.  Same as it ever was, in other words.

These statistics, to me, reflect social approval and opprobrium, set in a culture accepting of religious belief.  The shifts over time reflect shifts in the society, not shifts guiding the society.  The chapter I've been quoting starts off noting:

More than 150 years ago, in his Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “America is still the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls.” That might still be said at the close of the twentieth century. Tocqueville attributed this phenomenon to the multiplicity of independent sects in the United States, unmatched anywhere else in the world, and to the equally unusual separation of organized religion from the state.

I think Tocqueville is right.  This year marks the 180th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of his most famous work.  I don't think there has been any change in American culture to fundamentally change his observation in all that time.  However it seems there has been a fundamental change in religious sentiment, one that began during the Baby Boom, and while that change may be ebbing, it is not rapidly receding.

It hasn't really receded since the rise began, and that rise now constitutes about 1/3rd of the time that has passed since Tocqueville's observations.  In the succeeding 10% or so of that total span of time, which constitutes the new century, there is no reason to think there has been another fundamental change, or even that one is about to occur.  Unless the change is to a rapid disinterest in theism, or even a fervid embrace of atheism, the only possible change is a return to the status quo at the beginning of the 20th century.

But it's far too early to decide whether even that is happening.


  1. I like your post better. Excellent points.

  2. What I don't think any of us know is if this is a reversion to the norm or a more fundamental change in religious participation. Even within the current changes there are some interesting statistics and changes. Here is my local community but you can look at yours.

    Rochester is an interesting study because the population has been relatively stable (only a 1.4% increase) over the past 35 years. We belong to an ELCA congregation (40% decline in the 30 years of the survey) and I have read from other sources that at least half our denominations decline can be attributed to the drop in family size. What the statistics don't say, and I suspect there isn't any information on, is the change in the median age of church attendees. My suspicion is that the median age has substantially increased. Once that gray haired group passes on I suspect that we will drop below the norm of the last 150 years and there is a more substantial change.

    More to the point of the post (and as always many thanks for taking the time to write, I have reread the post on prayer several times and am a very regular reader), this is only tangentially helpful to understanding the level of religious belief in the broader community. There is a lot of "I am spiritual but not religious", "I am religious but don't belong to a particular denomination or church.", etc. That I think has had a much smaller decline. We spent 2005-2009 living in England, a place that is definitely now non-theistic (in contrast to atheistic, most people seemed indifferent to religion, not opposed). We are a long way from that in the US and I think that is unlikely to change in at least a generation.

  3. The numbers you cite for ELCA decline (and the link I used noted Lutherans have lost more members than most Protestant mainline denominations; no idea why) are interesting, because they point to decline based on shrinking families.

    Families are getting smaller because of economic conditions (more expensive even now than when I was in college, for example, to send kids to college) and because of rising health rates (number who die in childbirth down sharply over that last century or so).

    What is the percentage of the population, however?

    I know Europe in general is less interested in theism than in America. That takes me back to Tocqueville, and the separation of church and state which leaves us rather Dickensian in our attitude toward the poor and society's obligation to them (although I think the Victorians were less cruel, to be honest), but also rather more theistic than Europe with its legacy of state churches.

    It's this difference I think interesting. True attendance in Christian churches, and belief, has always, I think, been soft. The heyday of some denominations in America (mostly in the 20th century) denoted social acceptance/expectation, IMHO, far more than true devotion. I know churches in St. Louis which once had their own china and silver patterns, because they were the "carriage trade" church.

    Not sure what that ever had to do with the teachings of a Mediterranean peasant who said to sell all you have and give it to the poor.

    It may be, too, the decline that's been predicted since I was young (in the '60's) will finally come to pass, and the grey-haired generations will give way to empty buildings. There is a lot of flux in church occupation; then again, England was littered with ruined abbeys and abandoned houses of worship in the 19th century.

    And on the other, other hand, I've become quite skeptical about the value of full-time ministers and buildings devoted to worship and used only once a week. So I'm not sure whatever changes lie ahead are such bad things, actually.

  4. God isn't dead; she just can't afford the pollsters' fees.

  5. "Lutherans have lost more members than most Protestant mainline denominations; no idea why"

    Just a guess: of the Mainline Protestant denominations, Lutherans are the most ethnic (of ethnicities, Northern European, that is NOT % growing in the U.S.!). There was a congregation in my city, Sacramento, that was long known as "English Lutheran", but I doubt that helps either. ;-/

    Sorry, Martin L, but I think a re-branding really might benefit your USA descendants in the 21st century...

  6. rmj: " become quite skeptical about the value of full-time ministers and buildings devoted to worship and used only once a week"

    when did that become common practice here in the united states? does it relate to when a given area reached a certain level of wealth? we have some architecturally beautiful white elephant country churches around here that would have been built roughly fifty to seventy-five years after the homesteaders. it was the same era the railroads built marvelously elaborate passenger stations and they remind me of each other in their shared placing of form ahead of function

    in the last fifteen years or so we have developed a fairly substantial amish population and on sundays they go to each other's houses for church services. i've gone by in the afternoons and seen the young people in the yard playing volleyball. from way out here on the outside it looks like not only a throwback to what the early settlers did but also maybe a more intensely shared experience

  7. jim--I dunno, but I suspect your suspicions are right. My last church had built a huge sanctuary, capable of hold 300+, in its halcyon days (not so long ago now).

    The membership is down to a handful, who meet in the "Historic Chapel," built 100+ years ago and restored to its former glory as an "historic site," which means the pews are short in the seat and square in the back (90 degree angle square, I mean).

    I can only imagine they worship there very briefly, because it is very uncomfortable. Still, better than a dozen people gathered in a space meant for 300. And, of course, they can't afford a full-time pastor now.

    Not sure they could really afford it when I was there.

    As for young people: fuggedaboutit! If they are true to form, everyone there is older than me (and I'll soon be in my sixth decade) and clear out to go back home as quickly as possible.

  8. I can take a guess at why the Lutheran church (at least in Rochester) has declined so much. It is worth noting that other mainline Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal, Presbyterian and UCC churches have declined even more. Our congregation was formed almost 150 years ago by German immigrants. The services were in German up until WWI (as an aside, there is a great picture of the church from that time with a very large American flag hanging at the front of the sanctuary. There was to be no doubt as to loyalties). I am guessing that the church served not only as a religious institution, but also as a German cultural center for those recent immigrants. After 50 years the service was still in the homeland language. Even the families that can trace their lineage back to the founders of the congregation no longer think of themselves as remotely German, they are American. As immigrant families became integrated in society, they have less need for that cultural touchstone and so church becomes only the religious institution. Similarly, they take on American culture as to family size and everything else. The Catholic church in Rochester as declined 10% in the past 30 years but 25% in the last 10 years. In other words they had a peak during that time but have actually had faster fall off in the last 10 years than the Lutheran church. In general, immigrants from predominantly Catholic countries are more recent arrivals in the upstate area. They also seem to undergoing the same "Americanization" as the older arrivals. There certainly a lot more to the factors effecting changes in church affiliation, but I have to think the above has some merit.

  9. You can't discount the importance of culture and ancestry in church life.

    The UCC was formed from the German E&R and the Congregationalists. The E&R was itself a merger in America of Evangelical (which was already Luthern and Reformed) and German Reformed churches. All of the UCC churches were I live are German heritage churches, and pretty much dying as that local culture finally disappears into the melting pot. The one Congregational congregation in town (UCC although they maintain their Congregational name) is an intentional throwback to New England. Their "meeting house" is directly modeled on one there, as they will proudly tell you.

    And then there's the fact that Protestantism, far more than RC or Orthodox, is part and parcel of the culture around it, and that culture grows less interested in Protestantism as the years go by.