Declining US Religiosity

Dr. Craig discusses a recent Pew Research poll which shows the number of Americans not identifying with any religion continuing to grow at a rapid pace.


There was recently a Pew survey released concerning the religious affiliation of the American people that I thought was noteworthy and in many ways troubling.[1] Here is a press release concerning that. It says,

One fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation and this number is increasing rapidly.

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a fast pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.[2]

Growth among those with no religion has been a major preoccupation of American faith leaders who worry that the United States, a highly religious country, would go the way of Western Europe, where church attendance has plummeted. Pope Benedict XVI has partly dedicated his pontificate to combating secularism in the West. . . .

. . .

The trend also has political implications. American voters who describe themselves as having no religion vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.

[And I think we saw that illustrated at the Democratic convention where you remember it was only over the protests of half the convention attendees that the word “God” was reinserted back into the Democratic platform after being removed.]

Pew found that Americans with no religion support abortion rights and gay marriage at a much higher-rate than the U.S. public at large. These "nones" are an increasing segment of voters who are registered as Democrats or lean toward the party, growing from 17 percent to 24 percent over the last five years. The religiously unaffiliated are becoming as important a constituency to Democrats as evangelicals are to Republicans, Pew said.[3]

But the survey may be affected by a differing view of the words “religion” and “spiritual.”

A new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life . . . finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way.

Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68 percent). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58 percent), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37 percent), and one-in-five (21 percent) say they pray every day.

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

The lower the age group, the less likely people are to be affiliated.

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones.

A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32 percent), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9 percent). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.

[That is critical. It means you can’t explain this away by saying that when you are younger you are less religious but when you are older you get more religious. No, the statistics show that when the older generation was this age, when they were young, they were much more affiliated with religious groups and denominations than the current generation of under-30 adults.]

In addition, this report contains capsule summaries of some leading theories put forward by scholars in an attempt to explain the root causes of the rise of the “nones.” These theories run the gamut from a backlash against the entanglement of religion and politics to a global relationship between economic development and secularization.[4]

I want to suggest for your consideration the possibility of another explanation that I think is a major factor in the increasing apparent secularization of American society. This would be the collapse of the mainline denominations in this country over the last generation. I am talking about denominations like the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church, Roman Catholic Church. Those mainline denominations that back in the 1950s were the sort of culturally accepted forms of Christian expression that everyone felt that he needed to be a member of to be a respectable citizen in the United States. What has happened over the last generation is that these mainline denominations are in a state of free fall. They are losing members rapidly, their seminaries and divinity schools are closing or merging in order to keep the doors open. These mainline denominations are truly in crisis. And as they have collapsed, people who were in these mainline denominations, I think, have felt more free to disaffiliate themselves with any sort of religious confession.

So, what you have, I think, is the realization on the part of many nominal Christians that they really didn’t believe “this stuff;” they really weren’t Christians all along. And so now they have felt culturally the freedom to come out of the closet and disaffiliate. In other words, it was a kind of cultural Christianity that was so dominate in the 1950s. A nominal Christianity that people no longer feel obligated to give lip service to. They realize that they don’t really believe these doctrines and so they are willing to come out and be non-Christians. In one sense, at least, that kind of candor is good. It is refreshing. It is far better than people thinking that they are Christians just because they have been baptized or are a member of a church and so being lulled into thinking that they are in fact Christians when they are not.

The other factor, I think, is the rise of independent churches. Churches like Willow Creek and other community churches – megachurches – are booming right now. These are not connected with any sort of denomination in many cases. So when people say they are religiously unaffiliated, many of them may be attending these non-denominational churches and in their minds to be religiously unaffiliated means you are not a Baptist or Presbyterian or a Methodist but it doesn’t mean they are necessarily non-Christian.

Still, even with that I think there is no denying that these statistics are very disturbing. There is a rise of secularism in the United States that suggests we are on the same path as Western Europe in moving toward a more secular society. The fact is that evangelical churches in this country, though not in a state of collapse like the mainline denominations, are not growing at previous rates. They are stagnant or barely inching forward. I think we all know that many, many Christian students who come from Christian homes and Christian churches are walking away from their faith in alarming numbers once they leave home and go off to college or into the work world. We are losing the next generation. So I think this is a serious problem that the church needs to confront and I hope that the takeaway from this will be a kind of clarion call to us to redouble our efforts in evangelism and in training in apologetics for those kids who are in our churches so that they will have a solid foundation in reason and evidence for their faith when they face the challenges of a secular high school or university environment.[5]

[1] “’Nones’ on the Rise,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, October 9, 2012. See (accessed September 16, 2013).

[2] Ben Fearnow, “Study: One-Third Of Adults Under 30 Have No Religious Affiliation,” CBS Washington, October 9, 2012. See (accessed September 16, 2013).

[3] Rachel Zoll, “Report: US Protestants lose majority status,” Associated Press, October 9, 2012. See (accessed September 16, 2013).

[4] Fearnow, “Study,” CBS Washington.

[5] Total Running Time: 10:12 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)