The continuing secularization of America: belief in God falls to 81%

June 20, 2022 • 9:15 am

Although prices are rising in America, belief in God is falling. The good news is that this appears to be part of a consistent trend of secularization.  The bad news is that 81% of Americans still believe in God, and a bit more than half of those (42% overall) think that God hears prayers and can intervene to answer them (28% think God hears prayers but does nothing about then, while 11% think God doesn’t do either).

This is good news, and is detailed in a short article from Gallup. You can see it by clicking below, or going to the complete document, including methodology and the questions asked, at this pdf download site.

Here’s the trend since 1945. As Gallup notes,

Gallup first asked this question in 1944, repeating it again in 1947 and twice each in the 1950s and 1960s. In those latter four surveys, a consistent 98% said they believed in God. When Gallup asked the question nearly five decades later, in 2011, 92% of Americans said they believed in God.

A subsequent survey in 2013 found belief in God dipping below 90% to 87%, roughly where it stood in three subsequent updates between 2014 and 2017 before this year’s drop to 81%.

The fall from 92% in 2011 to 81% this year is pretty large.  Since there appear to be no data between the late 1960s and 2011, the slow decrease shown in the line is just an interpolation. But there’s no doubt that the long-term drop is a real drop, and goes along with a lot of data showing that Americans are, as REM sang, “losing their religion.” Perhaps some day we’ll be as areligious as northern Europe.

Here are the data on whether God hears/answers prayers (as we’ll see below, conservatives and liberals give very different data). But the idea that God hears prayers and intervenes leads to immense theological difficulties.  Does God refuse to answer some perfectly good prayers, like those of parents beseeching Him for the survival of their cancer-stricken child? There are many questions one could ask this 42% of Americans! Indeed, if you have the idea of God as a Man in the Sky with a Plan, one might think that a special request from someone for God to attend to their personal desires is trivial and solipsistic. So it goes.

Gallup broke the answers down by political party identification, ideological identification, frequency of going to church, and age. Here are those statistics (click to enlarge):

Of course those who go to church more often are more religious, with 99% of those who go to church weekly saying that they believe in God, and 74% saying that God hears prayers and intervenes.  Republicans are more religious than Democrats, with independents pretty much smack in the middle. For overall atheism, the percentage is 7% for Republicans, 26% of Democrats, and 18% for independents. The same trend holds if you divide people by “conservative, moderate, or liberal” instead of political party, except that the percentage of atheists rises to 35%. (Remember, these aren’t “nones,” some of whom are religious, but people who don’t believe in God at all. Those are atheists.

Finally, younger folk tend to believe in God less than older folk, though there’s not much difference on the prayer issue. There’s another figure for the changes in these data since 2013-2017, but you can see that for yourself.

Gallup’s conclusion:

Fewer Americans today than five years ago believe in God, and the percentage is down even more from the 1950s and 1960s when almost all Americans did. Still, the vast majority of Americans believe in God, whether that means they believe a higher power hears prayers and can intervene or not. And while belief in God has declined in recent years, Gallup has documented steeper drops in church attendancechurch membership and confidence in organized religion, suggesting that the practice of religious faith may be changing more than basic faith in God.

Whatever.  The fact is that many measures of religiosity show that America is becoming more secular, and that can only be to the good.  Just for fun, if you extrapolate a fall of 98% to 81% belief in 57 years, then America will become completely atheistic in about 270 years, or in 2293!

h/t: Barry

30 thoughts on “The continuing secularization of America: belief in God falls to 81%

  1. 81% is a depressing number, but I am heartened by the age distribution of believers—mostly older. We’re heading in the right direction. Let’s hope that the recent acceleration holds true into the future.

  2. While the trend is in the right direction, for me it does not inspire much optimism. On the contrary, I fear that as godiness declines, the true believers will feel endangered and retaliate with intolerance, much as we see the far right today responding to the demographic changes (our inevitable progress towards becoming a majority minority country) with bigotry and white supremacy. And of course none of us will be around in 2293.

  3. I wonder what percentage of atheists don’t believe in anything supernatural, paranormal, or irrational of any sort, such as reincarnation, life after death, the “Law of Vibration”, psychics, superstitions, ghosts, libertarian free will, karma, etc. What percentage of humans are fully free from any and all beliefs of that sort?

    Some might object to including libertarian free will in this category, but I consider it a quasi-religious belief, given that it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

    1. I have been surprised by a number of otherwise intelligent and well-educated people that I know who believe in ghosts. Human nature, I’m afraid.

    2. Those versions of supernaturalism which don’t fall easily into the way “God” is described in some major Western religions may, when placed into context, be considered a form of God. They are still grounded in the idea that reality is fundamentally concerned with human well-being — fairness, love, karma, morality, and the response to or the primacy of mind.

      So there’s at least an argument that woo-soaked self-defined atheists — and there are many of them — aren’t actually atheists. It depends on how narrowly God is defined. Many secular people, I’ve found, define it very narrowly. And many religious people define it so broadly they spread it into Nothing.

    3. Indeed, it seems to me that most of those younger persons who would not profess a belief in “god” still believe in all sorts of spiritual woo that can be just as, or almost as, detrimental.

  4. I think these statistics could differ very widely depending where you are in the US. When I lived and worked in New York I practically didn’t see any religious people. Some Jewish colleagues used to observe certain Jewish holidays, but that didn’t mean that they were true believers. And of course my job as a science editor did not bring me into contact with religious people.

  5. These data show that atheists are more likely to count themselves as Democrats (26%) and liberals (35%) than Republicans (7%) and conservatives (5%). So what’s going on here? What’s the connection? As secularism increases are we going to get more liberal as a country?

    1. I don’t have any formal evidence to point to, but it does seem to me that there is a correlation between secularism and liberalism. Furthermore, it seems to me to be quite closely tied to the fairly well established inverse correlation between economic security and religiosity. Or at least it seems quite plausible to me that these are indicators or aspects of the same thing.

  6. “Still, the vast majority of Americans believe in God, whether that means they believe a higher power hears prayers and can intervene or not.”

    No, it means the vast majority SAY they believe.* I challenge any poll person to adjust for “I’m afraid to admit I don’t. My husband will kill me. And I can’t tell my children there is no God. So I’m sayin’ … yep.”

    Same goes for ‘belief in God’ when it’s not a living relationship. Plenty of people don’t actually believe in God, but they are afraid to say it, so they invoke their “non-responsive Higher Power” ploy. Kumbaya. That’s a poor excuse for the almighty creator of heaven and earth, who judges you when you die.

    My bottom line: people don’t want to give up The Good. They think the world will be utterly evil and hellish — not good without God. So they have an ad hoc god.

    My response is “God is a subset of Good. Consider giving it up — you don’t need it.”

    * 60-70% of Americans say they go to worship service every week. When you actually count, however, only 19% actually do so.

  7. Interesting chart — a brief decline in the immediate post-War years, an uptick coinciding with the age of HUAC and McCarthyism and fears over “Godless Communism,” then the arc of history slowly bending against religious belief, the drop off coinciding with the rise of the New Atheism, a brief uptick coinciding with the rise of the Tea Party and Birtherism, followed by a precipitous decline over the last six years.

  8. “The fact is that many measures of religiosity show that America is becoming more secular, and that can only be to the good.”

    Then, do you think it would be good to outlaw religious observance?
    This is a serious question.
    IF you had the power to do so, would you do it?

    1. Would it be a boon to the American commonweal? Sure.

      But I don’t think anyone here — least of all our host — begrudges others the freedom of belief and freedom of conscience afforded by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

      1. My “IF you had the power to do so” presumes the power to eliminate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

        So, if you had the power to legally and Constitutionally outlaw religious observance (and doing so would be, as you say, “a boon to the American commonweal”), would you do so?

        1. No. I have no desire to control what anyone else believes. But if everyone in the nation were voluntarily to forsake their religious superstitions, I think America would be a better place for it. That was the original point I sought to make.

      2. “But I don’t think anyone here — least of all our host — begrudges others the freedom of belief. . . .”

        Thank you, Ken. As someone who believes in (for lack of a better word) God, ghosts, and woo of one kind or another, I appreciate this timely reminder. 😊

    2. No, because the good that comes from a declining belief in the supernatural is outweighed by more basic principles, such as freedom and fairness. I would never try to outlaw religion — and the only way I would outlaw a particular religion would be if, like the Thugees, ritual sacrifice which was baked into the practice involved befriending and killing unwary strangers.

      1. …or polygamy that the cult could not bring itself to expunge under pressure from the secular state and decided it was a hill they all had to die on.

        1. In these examples, the state could outlaw specific practices of a religion or cult, and not deny their constitutional right to practice their religion generally. Some of these practices have gone to court in the US claiming constitutional religious rights when conflicting with secular laws.

    3. I don’t believe in god any more than I believe in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. But I think the U.S. Constitution got it right — we can talk about anything, but the state can neither establish nor prohibit any religion. If I could prohibit you from practicing your religion, if the shoe were on the other foot, you could require me to practice yours.

    4. The question implies a common fallacy that I have often witnessed. If you challenge a believer’s nonsensical beliefs, the reaction is often “but I’m free to believe whatever I want!” To which the secular atheist must reply (again), “yes, of course you are (thanks to a centuries-long fight against religious authorities); I’m not questioning your right to believe something, I’m questioning the rationality of it.” So tiresome.

  9. I’m under the impression that there people here believe that once that number dips to 0% we will live in a golden age of secularism and rationality. It’s just not going to happen. How many adherents to the new religion of wokism believe in a god? Humans are not rational by nature.

    1. I don’t think any of us believe that. But if religion, along with all the regressive baggage it brings with it, should shrink to irrelevance, it would definitely be an improvement.

    2. “new religion of wokism” ? Wokism is not a religion, it is not based on the belief in the existence of supernatural beings. But many countries are living and thriving well with only a small proportion of the population believing in supernatural gods, Belgium is an example (except Islamic immigrants). Especially in education this is important. I personally believe that it is a crime to teach six-year-olds religious nonsense (a development in the UK that is alarming).

  10. In the last 10 years, the % dropped by 10 points, so perhaps we’ll only need to wait 81 years. There is a snowball effect. Especially when the young block of atheists start having families. Surprised to see my age group (50-64) with only 9% atheism, and 65+ has 12%. What gives?

    1. Well, follow the example of France and surprisingly Italy, that the teaching of Catholic (or any) religious dogma is not allowed in high schools (although in Italy the black frocks ignore this ruling).
      Better teach the kids “Mecki im Schlarraffenland”. (In German, but this book turned me into an atheist at age 10.)

  11. This is a poll recording what people SAY they do, not their actual behaviour. Another interpretation of the results is that, over time, respondents are becoming more comfortable in admitting to how they actually think and behave, instead of answering in what they consider to be a socially acceptable way.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *