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.”