The Richard Dawkins Foundation website highlighted a post by Tobin Grant, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University whose interest is the sociology of religion, and who writes about it at the site “Corner of Church and State” at the Religion News Service.
Grant’s post reports 61 years of measuring “religiosity” (the degree of religious belief) in the US, using statistics he developed in a 2008 paper (reference and free download below). In that paper, Grant combined 14 indices of religiosity into one, and developed a way to not only present that statistic in a way comparable among years, but to check its reliability. (You can read about the “validation” of his measure, the Aggregate Religiosity Index [ARI] in the paper at the bottom.
The components of the ARI are the indices below; the “correlation in the right column is the correlation of each component of the index with the ARI as a whole, showing how well each one individually could represent the whole:
In his 2008 paper, Grant showed a general decline in religiosity between 1952 and 2005: while religiosity rose for a while in the mid 1950s, it declined (irregularly) until 2005. His original graph showed this:
Grant has continued to monitor American religiosity yearly, and now has 8 more years of data. That data show that the decline of religiosity Grant perceived in 2008 is continuing, and at an increasing rate. Here’s the graph from his new website post. (The normalization to a mean of 100 has changed in a way he doesn’t describe, but the index itself and the data are the same as presented in the graph above—with the addition of 8 more years.)
Grant concludes that we’re in the midst of what he calls “The Great Decline” of American religiosity. And about time, too! His summary:
The graph of this index tells the story of the rise and fall of religious activity. During the post-war, baby-booming 1950s, there was a revival of religion. Indeed, some at the time considered it a third great awakening. Then came the societal changes of the 1960s, which included a questioning of religious institutions. The resulting decline in religion stopped by the end of the 1970s, when religiosity remained steady. Over the past fifteen years, however, religion has once again declined. But this decline is much sharper than the decline of 1960s and 1970s. Church attendance and prayer is less frequent. The number of people with no religion is growing. Fewer people say that religion is an important part of their lives.
In 2013, we saw continued declines in religiosity. The importance of religion in people’s lives? Down. Church attendance? Down. People who say they are “no religion”? Up. The result: 2013 had the lowest level of religiosity of any year we can measure.
Overall, the hundreds of survey measures point to the same drop in religion: If the 1950s were another Great Awakening, this is the Great Decline.
Now we all know of the famous increase in “nones” in the U.S. (people who profess no formal affiliation with a church); that category is in fact fastest-rising category of “belief” if you consider “no affiliation” a form of “belief” like Catholicism or Judaism. Between 2007 and 2012, for instance, “nones” rose from 15% to 20% of the American population, an increase of 33% from their original value.
While that has distressed some religious people, many have tried to dismiss it by saying simply that the “nones” are still religious, but just can’t find a church that satisfied their spiritual needs.
Grant’s data, however, shows that this explanation doesn’t wash: the decline in religiosity as measured by the ARI, while partly reflecting a decline in church attendance, also reflects a decline in “feeling close to God” (the component of the ARI most correlated with its overall value), “frequency of prayer,” and assessment of the importance of religion as a guide to life. Those are all forms of religion one can practice without formal affiliation with a church.
So while the rise in “nones,” and the decline of ARI, might reflect a replacement of formal religion with informal religion (i.e., a belief in God but no church membership), it almost certainly reflects a general secularization of the country as a whole. This conclusion is supported by data Grant gave in a post on August 1, which shows that while formal church membership and attendance are indeed decreasing, so are people’s assessment of “religion’s importance in life” and “religion’s relevance for today.” The latter two statistics reflect people’s general feelings about the value of religion, not whether or not they belong to a church. And all of it is dropping like a stone.
Professor Ceiling Cat predicted this, of course, but it’s also been predicted by many other sociologists and my pal Steve Pinker. As we become more embedded in the wider world, and connected with European countries that have become more secularized, we will undergo the same secularization as they. This is almost inevitable given the spread of Enlightenment values, of respect for science, and a realization that it’s time to put away our superstitions and belief in childish things. We no longer need religion in the U.S., either as an explanation for the great mysteries of life (many of which are being solved by science), or as a form of social glue to give us solace. As social welfare and general empathy increase, religiosity (a divine substitute for what governments and friends can do for you) will also decline. The opium of the people will no longer be needed when you can get that “fix” from your government and community providing you with free health care, maternity and paternity leave, and help when you’re old or ill.
Although we won’t reach an ARI of zero in my lifetime, I’m confident that, unless the Caliphate takes over, the U.S. will someday become as nonreligious as Denmark, Sweden, and France. Thank God for that!
Grant, J. T. 2008. Measuring aggregate religiosity in the United States, 1952-2005. Sociol. Spectrum 28:470-476.