Religion in America: A Decade of Decline

Organized religion has long maintained a central role in the lives of many Americans. Its significance is not just spiritual. 

Churches and other places of worship can also be venues for socializing. In the Catholic church of my childhood, for example, fellow parishioners would chat after mass each week, enjoy occasional spaghetti dinners in the church basement, and cookies and coffee after the Christmas services. I became a skeptic at an early age, but, if I did not live 3,000 miles away, I would still show up every summer at St. Rocco’s Italian festival for the pizza fritte, pasta fagioli, and the reunion with friends and family.

When psychotherapy was less accepted than it is now, parish priests and other religious leaders were important sources of psychological help. The members of their flocks could seek them out without stigma or shame.

Over time, organized religion has become less central to American life. The Pew Research Center released a report in October 2019 documenting the marked decline in religious affiliation and religious attendance over the past decade. 

Pew has been conducting random-digit-dial telephone surveys since 2009. Their recent report on America’s changing religious landscape was based on 88 surveys conducted between 2009 and 2019. More than 168,000 people in the U.S., 18 and older, participated in the research, which was conducted in English and Spanish. The two key questions were “What is your present religion, if any?” and “Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services?”

More People Have No Religious Affiliation at All and Fewer Attend Religious Services

In 2009, fewer than one in five Americans (17%) described themselves as unaffiliated with any religion. They said they were atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” Now, slightly more than one in four (26%) say they have no religious affiliation, an increase of 9 percentage points. That amounts to nearly 30 million more people today than a decade ago who identify with no formal religion. 

Of those adults in the U.S. who are religiously affiliated, 65% identify as Christian. But that is down 12 percentage points from a decade ago, when 77% identified as Christian. 

Attendance at religious services is way down, too. In 2009, more than half of all adults in the U.S. (52%) said that they attended religious services at least once a month. Now, only 45% do. Meanwhile, the share of people who never attend a religious service has increased from 11% in 2009 to 17% in 2019. 

A decade ago, regular worshippers (who attended religious services at least once a month) outnumbered rare worshippers (who attended occasionally or not at all), 52% to 47%. Now those percentages have flipped, with rare worshippers outnumbering regular worshippers, 54% to 45%. 

Gender Matters, But Age Matters Even More

In the U.S., women are more religious than men. Fewer women than men say that they are unaffiliated with any religion, 23% compared to 30%. More women than men attend religious services at least once a month, 50% compared to 40%.

A bigger demographic difference is generational. Only 10% of the “silent generation” (born between 1228 and 1945) are unaffiliated with any religion. That number increases to 17% for the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and to 25% for Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980). For the Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), the number of people unaffiliated with any religion is a striking 40%.

The same pattern emerges for attendance at religious services. Among the Silent Generation, 61% show up at least once a month. That drops to 49% for the Baby Boomers and 46% for Generation X. For the Millennials, attendance falls off a cliff: Only 22% attend religious services once a month or more. 

In Every Demographic Group, Fewer Identify as Christian, But There Are Big Differences

The decade-long pattern of fewer people identifying as Christian is true of every demographic group analyzed in the Pew report. Specifically, among men and women; people from all four generations; Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics; people with and without a college education; people from the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West; as well as Republicans and Democrats, the percentage of people identifying as Christian has declined. 

The decrease in the percentage of people identifying as Christian was more marked for some groups than others. Again, the generational differences are starkest. In the past decade, those identifying as Christian declined by only 2% among the oldest generation. Among the youngest, there are 16% fewer Christians now than in 2009.

Political party matters, too. Among Democrats, the number identifying as Christian declined by 17 percentage points in the past decade. Among Republicans, it declined by 7 percentage points.

Regional differences are also noteworthy. In the Northeast, the number identifying as Christian decreased by 15 percentage points. In the West, it decreased by 9. 

Racial or ethnic differences were not striking. The decline in identifying as Christian among non-Hispanic whites was 12 percentage points. For non-Hispanic blacks, it was 11, and for Hispanics, it was 10. 

Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon, and Other Non-Christians in the U.S.

As a percentage of all U.S. adults, most non-Christian affiliations stayed about the same. From 2009 through 2019, about 2%, have been Mormon and the same percent have been Jewish. Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindu adults have accounted for about 1% each year (though for Hindus, the percentage was below 1% before 2014). People of all other non-Christian faiths increased slightly, from 2% every year until 2016 and then 2019, when they accounted for 3%.

Related Articles