America’s inexorable secularization: for the first time, less than half of Americans are church members

March 30, 2021 • 9:30 am

A new Gallup poll shows that for the first since polling began in 1940, the number of Americans who belong to a church has fallen below 50%. This is part of the inexorable and welcome secularization of American, and goes hand in hand with the rise of the “nones:—people who have no formal religious affiliations. (“Nones” include nonbelievers, agnostics, “spiritual” folks, and people who believe in God but aren’t affiliated with a church.)

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s the chart of the proportion of Americans belonging to a church over the past eight decades.  As the survey notes,”U.S. church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century.” If this trend continues, in a century America will have very few religious people.

The trend won’t continue forever, of course, as there are some people who won’t give up their faith until it’s pried from their cold, dead hands (sadly, they’ll never discover they were wrong). But, as I’ve always maintained, this trend is part of the increasing importance of science, and the realization by many that religion is indeed a fairy tale.

There are actually three causes of this drop: people becoming “nones” within a generation (this includes church members who retain their faith but give up their church membership) and the trend that people who are younger tend to be less religious (the “one body at a time” theory):

The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.

. . . The two major trends driving the drop in church membership — more adults with no religious preference and falling rates of church membership among people who do have a religion — are apparent in each of the generations over time.

This is a remarkably fast erosion of religion. Here’s a plot of the decline in formal church membership among people who retain their religion—down around 13% in 20 years.

And the age effect:

Church membership is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists — U.S. adults born before 1946 — belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.

The decline in church membership, then, appears largely tied to population change, with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong.

This decline of religion is, argues Steve Pinker in Better Angels and Enlightenment Now, one of the reasons for the increase in morality over the last few centuries in Western nations. You can argue about whether he’s right, but the trend is, as Nixon might have said, “perfectly clear.”

h/t: Woody

48 thoughts on “America’s inexorable secularization: for the first time, less than half of Americans are church members

  1. This is good news, of course, but it does mask continuing un-reason in the form of non-church religiosity in forms like wokeness and “conspirituality”.

    1. That – and new age woo woo bs – are all less of a problem because the latter do not have the approval of the state, the majority, tradition or “morals” behind them.

      if you say your personality/success was “due to my belief in Jesus” THAT still flies.
      Saying “my personality/success was due to my belief in crystals or Sagittarius” you’re not getting anywhere.
      Established religion, because of its bulk and acceptability is a much greater threat.
      Glad to see its demise. 🙂

  2. Re this, Joseph Bottum, *An Anxious Age: the Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America* observes the effects of this trend on public discourse – lends weight to the frequent observations here about the way political stances have become surrogates for a sense of belonging to “the elect.”

    1. Sadly, this makes some sense. Tribalism seems to me to be innate, at least for many people. If you can’t, or don’t want to, fulfill that need by clinging to a particular religious sect, you can instead fulfill that need by going all-in on a political group — a la the cult of Trump.

      1. Bottum’s book is from 2014, so pre-Trump. He is more focused on what JohnDonohue below terms the “Good, not God” folks, who have “social gospel” values (bigotry, public abuses of power, injustice, etc. are all bads to be done away with), without the gospel part. Trump supporters are less post-Protestant than Protestant, from what I’ve seen of those data.

      2. Bizarrely, I’d never seen the name “Bottum” before today but had just noticed it in a Guardian article minutes before reading HAT’s first comment above:

        An interesting piece, by the way, regardless of the fact that it doesn’t reflect my musical or sexual tastes. Luckily for me, I find very many things interesting although my latest academic proofreading assignment (a statistics journal paper) might be challenging…!

      3. Tribalism seems to me to be innate, at least for many people. If you can’t, or don’t want to, fulfill that need by clinging to a particular religious sect, you can instead fulfill that need by going all-in on a [political] group

        You’ve never seen the baying faces of the faithful screaming their gladiators on to “death or victory” in the local “old firm” game? The actual game doesn’t matter much – round ball; oval ball; round wooden ball; machine gun and thermonuclear warhead; fast car; slow skis – but there are dozens of alternative games of “us versus them” available these days to accommodate people’s alleged “need to belong”.

    2. Demographically, the rise of New Atheism tracks well with the decline of moderate Protestantism in the US. Then, about 10 years ago, there was a schism in the atheist community that Dawkins had started and many atheists became woke.

      1. there was a schism in the atheist community that Dawkins had started

        There are two claims of fact there (that there is a schism in the atheist community, and that Dawkins started it), both of which need demonstrating.
        Actually, four claims – the above, and that there is an “atheist community” (one, single), and that there has been one (not two, three, or 57) schisms in it.
        What exactly are you claiming has happened – and how good is the evidence for this having happened?
        I’ve been a convinced atheist since the mid-70s, but I’ve known multiple non-overlapping groups of atheists throughout my life, of many differing opinions, with almost as many schisms as people. And that predates Dawkins being anything more than a science writer.

          1. “trouble”, for unworrying (to me) values of “trouble”.
            That’s going to have the Wokerati spitting feathers.

        1. If you doubt there was ever an atheist community, perhaps you consume different media than me. New Atheism was an internet phenomenon and actually hard to miss. I was quite young at the time and recall the so-called “sceptical community” on YouTube, which was full of religion-bashing and whose members later switched to more political topics as the appeal of their atheism wore off. Reddit’s r/atheism was one of the most popular subs, less political than now but even more zealous. And yes, there was zeal. Dawkins even hoped atheists could form a voting block.

          If you doubt there was a schism, just look at PZ Meyers. Once a good ally to Dawkins and Coyne, but now their enemy due to politics. Iirc Elevatorgate revealed that there were fundamentally different goals among atheists, and the more progressive ones went from promoting Atheism+ (Atheism plus social justice, because the former was not enough) to full-blown wokeism within a few years. Not too surprisingly, I have read the most hateful screeds against Dawkins on websites by former atheist activists who underwent that transition.

          How many schisms there are overall in atheist history is not all that important (note I did not say that there must only be one). I know that New Atheism was not welcomed by all atheists, and that the philosophically inclined in particular thought it shallow. But whoever left at that time could be quickly replaced by many newcomers.

          There are some good discussions about atheism on SSC:, in particular

          1. You list a number of sites of which I’ve heard but never (or almost never) read. I got ejected from the Sunday school which (I assume) my mother had me sent to for asking too many questions in the very early 1970s (before the 1973 move, for sure), scored highest-in-year in Religious Education (which the teacher taught as “comparative religion”) in 1978 (or -9), and stopped wasting more than trivial effort on my atheism after that. If there is an “Internet of Atheism” as you suggest, then this site is about the closest I come to interacting with it. Religion and the religious really is beneath contempt, and an abrogation of the only thing that makes humans different from animals (logic) which really marks it’s adherents as not being the same species as me. The antics of the Wokerati interest me to a similar degree – beneath contempt.

            There are some good discussions about atheism on

            Why? Is there anything to discuss?

  3. This must be seen as good news. But among the different factors, I think it should be considered that young people don’t affiliate with a church b/c they just don’t socialize through it. They are online. Tweeting & Tik-Tok-ing, and scrolling thru Imgur or whatever.
    Meanwhile the older people used their church affiliation to socialize, and that is in part why it was higher in the past. The church foyer has been replaced by the iPhone.

    1. Good point.

      This idea, of the church as a main venue for socializing, goes way back; one of the big complaints of the English Puritans, people like John Bunyan, was that High Church Anglicanism was just a social networking activity, with no real religiosity driving it. And Kierkegaard in the 19th century sounds the same kind of note (over and over and over): what he contemptuously referred to as Christendom was the social club calling itself the Danish State Lutheran Church. For a lot of people, religion has always been primarily about picnics, ice cream socials, fish fries and what have you. The social connection is the real need, not spiritual enlightenment or fulfillment or whatever.

    2. Not doing Insta-tok, Face-tweet or Tok-book, and having not logged into my twitter account for most of a month now, could it be that there are church-like social groups on these platforms which parallel or mimic the more traditional “God-Kids for killing Infidels” groups associated with bricks and mortar churches?

  4. Have to wonder if the trend in religion causes the same reactions as it does with the trend (fewer) white/republican numbers. It seems to create a more extreme version of what they are. Specifically the increased intrusions on the rest of us. If you look around you see this everyday. So far the reductions reported in percentages of religiousness has made it worse for the rest of us.

  5. i wonder how this trend varies, if indeed it does, among the various religions, such as Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and in the last group, among various groups, such as Baptist, Protestant, Catholic, etc.?

    1. An ancient cartoon makes a good prediction:

      My understanding is that at least among Protestant denominations, you can estimate how liberal a group is based on how quickly it loses members. Catholicism technically allows no schisms, but there are ultra-conservative splinter groups like the FSSPX who do noticeably better at retaining members than the main church.

  6. In reply to Howard S. Neufeld, here’s what Gallup says:

    “Among religious groups, the decline in membership is steeper among Catholics (down 18 points, from 76% to 58%) than Protestants (down nine points, from 73% to 64%). This mirrors the historical changes in church attendance Gallup has documented among Catholics, with sharp declines among Catholics but not among Protestants. Gallup does not have sufficient data to analyze the trends for other religious faiths.”

    1. Not so sure. I don’t have numbers to point to but the typical QAnon groupie seems to be Christian from what I’ve seen.

      1. I was mostly joking but it has been noted that QAnon belief (and Trumpism for some) is religious in nature. Since a person can harbor multiple religious beliefs, the graph is more complicated. Still, some people may be trading in their focus on traditional religion for a belief in Trump and/or QAnon. If you are a troubled ignoramus, do you go to church on Sunday, a Trump rally, or stay at home doing QAnon “research”?

        By the way, HBO’s “Q: Into The Storm” is an interesting documentary. For me, the main takeaway is that these people are all really deranged and not too sharp. If we’re looking at the people behind Q, as the show’s creator believes, I’m even more embarrassed for the human race.

          1. To misquote people talking about Ayn Rand, Margaret Atwood and George Orwell, “[book] was a warning, not an instruction manual”, for [book] in [“1984”, “Animal Farm”, “Atlas Shrugged”, Handmaid’s Tale”].
            Just add “Idiocracy” onto the list.

            1. Indeed, though some idiot is probably digging a tunnel to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as we speak so that they can post the “evidence” on whatever site is prepared to host that nonsense nowadays.

              1. Any well-organised and professional espionage department will be subsidising hosting-space on the “dark web” for these – along with Tor nodes and bandwidth for accessing them. The payback in disruption/$ is better than actually having to pay agents provocateurs, spies, fifth columnists, editors, managers, accountants etc.
                It’s cheaper than having an army and a war. It’s quite possibly more effective.

              2. I think you could have ended that sentence with “digging a tunnel to 1600.” Seems like about the right time frame for the regressive wingnuts.

        1. In court records of QAnon followers arrested in the wake of the Capitol insurrection, 68% reported they had received mental health diagnoses. The conditions they revealed included post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia and Munchausen syndrome by proxy. By contrast, 19% of all Americans have a mental health diagnosis.
          Among QAnon insurrectionists with criminal records, 44% experienced a serious psychological trauma that preceded their radicalization, such as physical or sexual abuse of them or of their children. -Sophia Moskalenko, Research Fellow in Social Psychology, Georgia State University

          1. That sounds right but I’m guessing that this is pretty much true of all the insurrections, not just those that believe in QAnon. Furthermore, most QAnon believers were not part of the insurrection and also didn’t have the questionable backgrounds to the same extent. Most are just fools and tools.

    2. Following Shermer’s model of superstition being “agenticity” and “patternicity”, you could consider conspiracy theories as just another form of superstition. Afaik belief in conspiracies is positively correlated with religious faith, and both are generally in decline. I even wonder whether the internet truly increased belief in conspiracy theories. It might well deter more people than it encourages given how easy it is to find a critical website when you google something weird.

      1. I can certainly believe that religious belief correlates with the tendency to believe in conspiracies. However, someone who believes in a conspiracy would not likely call it a religion so would answer a poll question mentioning “religion” accordingly. If large numbers of people shift their belief from, say, Christianity to QAnon, this might result in an apparent reduction in religious belief that is not an improvement from our point of view. I welcome a reduction in organized religious belief but not if it means they’re switching to QAnon.

  7. 50% (and when it was claimed higher) is only this: the number that “say” they believe and belong. When social scientists count the number of people showing up for services, the number is somewhere in the 20-30% range.

    One the other hand, I have a category: “Good, not God.” These are people who don’t belong to a church, and don’t believe in a “higher power” even at an ‘easy-to-include’ level. However, they do not want to give up The Good that was once a part of Americans’ sense of life.

    For example: they are horrified when encountering a person who is a bigot, but refuse with a passion to accept unearned guilt and shame for once-common laws that encoded bigotry into racial slavery or segregation.

    Perhaps they decline God/church because it did not do enough to fight those laws.

  8. Razib Khan made the point that back in 2006 the decline of traditional religion would have been viewed by many atheists as the dawn of a new age of reason and rationality. But instead we now have conspiracy wackos on the right and woke folk on the left. The world seems to have gotten less rational. The implication is that perhaps it was better for people to be religious, since the religious impulse will manifest itself no matter what.

    I have my doubts about this. The right wing has always been prone to conspiracy theories (remember the John Birch Society?) and young people have a long history of being disruptive (look at the 60s, or how students/apprentices tended to be involved in so many historical mobs or revolts). The internet has also played a major role in allowing extremists to meet, share ideas, and really radicalize themselves.

    Nevertheless, it seems clear that even in a world without traditional religion there would still be plenty of fanatics and ideologues who treat their cause with religious fervor. Human reason has its limits.

  9. … the trend is, as Nixon might have said, “perfectly clear.”

    I suspect the Dickster himself was a “none,” though anyone seriously aspiring to the US presidency can’t come right out and say so. Nixon maintained a nominal connection to Quakerism, the religion of his parents, especially his mother, Hannah, who, as Nixon was wont to tell the world (including in his maudlin, self-serving farewell speech to his White House staff) “was a saint.”

  10. Hallelujah, praise the Lord! Of course, it’s probably a ploy to bring on the end times from the believers’ point of view… Roll on the day that I can move that apostrophe forward!

    1. it’s probably a ploy to bring on the end times from the believers’ point of view…

      Some of them are very explicit about that. Which really ought to ring louder alarm bells with the likes of Netanyahoo who make so much of their support amongst American fundamentalist groups.
      As the first missionary said to the secondary missionary in the cauldron, “I have some of their language and they’re preparing a great feast at which we will be guests of honour…”

      1. HAHAHA. Killer. The endtimes relationship between saved Christians and Jews falls apart quite spectacularly at about that time. Maybe somebody should tell Netanyahu about that. 🙂
        Hopefully he’ll read about it from his cell.

        1. You think he hasn’t been buying “honest” (in the sense, “remains brought”) support in the judiciary?
          While I’ve thought many things about Netan-yahoo, “incompetent” hasn’t been in that list.

    1. “Coming in for landing”, and not in the “walk away from it” sense of a good landing.

Leave a Reply