Links and Comments: The Decline of US Church Membership

When I posted my notes about Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe, I noted that one of his principle observations was how, writing in 2000 or 1999, levels of religious belief hadn’t changed much since the 1960s, the era in which Time Magazine controversially asked “Is God Dead?” And I mentioned how levels of belief *have* declined since Shermer’s book, with the rise of the “nones.”

This past week came a major survey confirming that rise of the “nones,” or more specifically, the decline over the past two decades in church membership.

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First, the Gallup poll, posted March 29: U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time.

Story Highlights

  • In 2020, 47% of U.S. adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque
  • Down more than 20 points from turn of the century
  • Change primarily due to rise in Americans with no religious preference

With several informative charts, e.g. how church membership has dropped from 76% in the late 1940s, to 47% today.

— — —

So is this a trend toward the secular utopias imagined by writers like Arthur C. Clarke (e.g. in the novel I reviewed here (see under Quotes)), or the secular, post-capitalism interstellar network of semi-independent societies we saw in Star Trek TOS and TNG? Has humanity finally grown away from superstition and toward rational ways of running a society?

Of course not. There are other motivations for this decline in church membership.

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The Week, 31 March, Damon Linker: The turbulent ride of post-church America.

He sees this as part of the turmoil over the past two decades in American politics, from 9/11 and various wars to the elevation of a “carnival barker” to the White House and an insurrection on the US Capitol.

What about its cause? That’s harder to answer. One possibility is that there’s a feedback loop at work in which the association of religion with increasingly right-wing forms of Republican politics inspires some (younger and more left-leaning believers) to leave church behind, hastening a decline that began for other reasons. … This might explain why rates of church membership are falling faster among Democrats and liberals than among Republicans and conservatives.

He goes on about trends in the 1960s and 1980s.

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Jerry Coyne notes this: America’s inexorable secularization: for the first time, less than half of Americans are church members. Coyne is hard-nosed about this issue (he wrote a book called Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible):

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.

And makes this point about the inverse relationship between religion and morality.

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.”

(Because religion clings to the primitive morality of the ancient world, not one that applies to the modern world.)

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Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 2 April: Church membership is in a freefall, and the Christian right has only themselves to blame, subtitled, “Fewer than half of Americans now belong to a church, and the trend of pew abandonment isn’t slowing down”

She notes the trend as having happened over the past two decades [since Shermer], and notes that it is not about

…Americans suddenly burying themselves in the philosophical discourse about the unlikeliness of the existence of a higher power. The percentage of Americans who identify as atheist (4%) or agnostic (5%) has risen slightly, but not even close to enough to account for the number of people who claim no religious affiliation. A 2017 Gallup poll finds that 87% of Americans say they believe in God. So clearly, what we’re seeing is a dramatic increase in the kinds of folks who would say something akin to, “I’m spiritual, but not big on organized religion.”

She blames the trend on the increasing extremism of the religion right.

The early Aughts saw the rise of megachurches with flashily dressed ministers who appeared more interested in money and sermonizing about people’s sex lives than modeling values of charity and humility.

Not only were these religious figures and the institutions they led hyper-political, the outward mission seemed to be almost exclusively in service of oppressing others. The religious right isn’t nearly as interested in feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless as much as using religion as an all-purpose excuse to abuse women and LGBTQ people. In an age of growing wealth inequalities, with more and more Americans living hand-to-mouth, many visible religious authorities were using their power to support politicians and laws to take health care access from women and fight against marriage between same-sex couples. And then Donald Trump happened.

And concludes,

The growing skepticism of organized religion in the U.S. is a trend to celebrate. While more needs to be done to replace the sense of community that churches can often give people, it’s undeniable that this decline is tied up with objectively good trends: increasing liberalism, hostility to bigotry, and support for science in the U.S. Americans are becoming better people, however slowly, and the decline in organized religious affiliation appears to be a big part of that.

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