Explaining religious decline in the Northeast

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The Northeast Region

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The Northeast Region

The Northeast Region

The Northeast Region

Last week, American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher asked for help in understanding the decline of Christianity in the Northeast. Here’s my submission.

Let’s think of the decline in terms of the proportion of self-identified adult Christians (with Christians defined broadly to include Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others). Based on the American Religious Identification Survey and PRRI’s American Values Atlas, between 1990 and 2013 the proportion of Christians in the country as a whole shrank from 86 percent to 71 percent. (The proportion of Nones — those who disclaim a religious identity — grew by an almost equivalent amount, from 8 percent to 21 percent.)

The Christian decline was in fact most pronounced in the Northeast, which went from 84 percent to 64 percent. The West, by contrast, only shrank from 80 percent to 71 percent. The decline in the Midwest was from 88 percent to 72 percent and in the South from 92 percent to 77 percent. In short, over the past quarter-century, the Northeast has supplanted the West as the country’s least Christian region, going from near the national average to well below it. How come?

The answer has everything to do with Roman Catholicism, the region’s largest religious tradition. From 1990 to 2013, the proportion of self-identified Catholics in the Northeast shrank dramatically, from 43 percent to 31 percent. By contrast, the Catholic proportion of the population in the rest of the country has declined by only four points, from 26 percent to 22 percent.

Much of the regional disparity has to do with the church’s Latinization. Latino immigration has been disproportionately into the West and the South, increasing the percentage of Catholics in each region. But this does not explain the difference between the Northeast and the Midwest, where the Catholic proportion of the population has declined by just six points (27 percent to 21 percent), despite having fewer Latino immigrants.

To be sure, shrinking Northeastern Catholicism does not account for the entire decline in Northeastern Christianity. The proportion of non-Catholic Christians in the Northeast shrank by 17 percent between 1990 and 2013, from 41 percent to 34 percent. That, however, is equivalent to the shrinkage of non-Catholics in the Midwest (16 percent) and well below the West (26 percent) and the South (29 percent). In other words, to the extent that the Northeast has de-christianized relative to the rest of the country, it has to do with Catholics — and specifically, with white Catholics.

The key event was the sexual abuse scandal that exploded in Boston in 2002. In Massachusetts, the epicenter of the crisis, the proportion of Catholics has shrunk by fully one-third, from 54 percent of the population to 36 percent. In Rhode Island and Connecticut, the shrinkage was 27 percent and 22 percent respectively. Although the scandal rippled across the country, nowhere has the disaffiliation of Catholics been greater than in southern New England, which has historically been the most Catholic part of the country.

As was clear to those who followed the scandal as it unrolled, middle-class white Catholics became more disaffected as a result of the scandal than did immigrant communities, dependent as the latter were on the church for social service support. So it’s been in the Northeast, led by New England (where the proportion of immigrant Catholics was smaller and the scandal hit hardest) that Catholicism, and thus Christianity, has declined more than anywhere else.

  • Larry

    A decline in identifying with Christianity does not necessarily equal a decline in religious identity.

    The Northeast especially New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are homes to growing immigrant enclaves from all over. With that is a growth in people from minority faiths such as Islam, Hindu and Buddhism. Most notably populations from East Asia and South Asia have increased dramatically in the last 40 years. Christian populations are becoming proportionally smaller because these places are becoming much more diverse.

    Another factor is the decline of the Irish and Italian enclaves. As both groups became more integrated into the national mainstream in the last century, they have a greater tendency to disperse. A example is New York’s Little Italy. Its been reduced to 1-2 blocks with restaurants catering to tourists but the majority of the historical neighborhood has become a veritable “Chinatown North”.

  • Ben in oakland

    Of course, you can blame this on the sexual abuse scandal. What better way to demolish your own credibility by claiming that god calls child-molesting priests to the priesthood, and then cover up said abuse in order to prevent a “scandal in the church”?

    But I think a better answer is found in Helen Hunt’s (mother of the infamous Hunt Brothers) comment some 25-30 years ago. When asked if the bible was the inerrant word o’ god, she responded, more or less, with this:

    “Of course it is. If you start questioning it, where to you stop?”

    The Church in the west has backed itself into a corner over its inconsistencies, not over its insistence that it alone holds the truth that should govern peoples’ lives, and that this insistence is in some sort of mythical conflict with “popular culture”, whatever that may be.

    98% of catholic women use birth control, if I recall. Young people overwhelmingly support marriage equality, and young evangelicals are coming around. Only the grifters and die hard social conservatives believe the spew coming form both sides of their mouths concerning gay people; real, caring, compassionate people know it’s all lies, and look askance not at gay people, but at the purveyors of the lies. People everywhere have access to the internet, and unless they are enamored of the Faux news, learn new things that contradict religious “teaching”. Life is more demanding and complex than it was 50 years ago. Who wants to spend what little free time people have in order to listen to people tell them god loves them so much that he will damn them to hell forever if they don’t believe it?

    The church is losing its influence in the first world entirely, and beginning to lose its influence in the second world. Only in the third world does it hold much sway anymore. And there, the evangelicals and the crazies and the grifters are fighting it out with the established churches, and he latter are losing as well.

  • drwho13

    I was in a major Catholic seminary and a religious order in the mid 90’s. When I reported a specific case of child sexual abuse to my superiors that info was not welcomed. I later learned that they were already aware of it; and furthermore, they were also covering for the priest involved. I was ostracized for breaking the unwritten code of silence; “never snitch on a brother priest.” At that point I realized that I could never become a priest (no longer wanted to be). I also stopped using the RC Church as my moral compass because I simply no longer trusted that organization. Once one learns how an illusionist deceives, one can never believe again. I am not referring to a believe in God (still a believer); I’m referring to belief in relying on a specific religious organization for moral and ethical guidance.

  • Isabella Sinton

    Dear Professor Silk
    Nice article, loaded with facts statistics, etc.
    Here’s my view: Many people realize that you don’t need to wear a funny hat ( Mite, beanie, etc) to talk to God.
    Plus who needs an arrogant, narcissist, mora-less bishop, cardinal, priest acting as middleman.
    Thank You.

  • drwho13

    Look at where many of the vocations to the priesthood are coming from,today, the 3rd World. Why? It’s a way out of poverty.

  • burfree

    “Irish and Italians integrated into mainstream”—- More like disappearing into interbreeding melting pot and identities lost. Also foretold that Babylon the Great- all false religion- would be losing adherents steadily from now on out.

  • burfree

    What “religious teaching”. “Marriage equality” -How can anyone believe the US -only hype over that.
    “M.E.”, so called, has been legal all over the world for awhile -with no takers except in this land of dupes!

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  • Globalist

    The culture wars over birth control as defined by the church and state legislature that starting with the Northeast RC bishops in the late 60s has petered out. Birth control is a personal private choice and not part of any ancient religious or moral tome and not at all related totally to the anti-female code word “abortion”. An archdiocese like Philly that is belly up in closing the inner city parishes, schools, high schools is busy consolidating its real estate portfolio selling off these once financed by immigrants plots of land and improvements – this to pay lawyers for the child abuse hobby of the RC hierarchy and clergy. The white burb RC church is strong there but small. It is not surprising that only NYC and Boston now have a voting age cardinal in those cities. Philly and Baltimore and their declining Catholic population reflect the Vatican’s realization, number of non-pope votes, of the dying faith in the Northeast U.S..

  • Jack

    The article rings true…..I have noticed a decline in Christianity since about 1990.

    But what’s missing from the radar of both secularists and evangelicals is the big religious revival of the mid-1970s through late 1980s, when what was then the largest generation in history – the baby boomers — were transformed from the “God-is-Dead” generation into the generation that was ground zero for the battle between secularism and religiosity — as tens of millions became evangelicals and charismatics.

    It seems the entire nation, from committed evangelicals to radical secularists and everyone in between, has an odd collective amnesia about that time frame and what was happening then. The secularists would rather the revival had never occurred, while millions of evangelicals are somewhat embarrassed by it (even as many were a part of it) because it contradicted their eschatological view that everything has to get worse, not better, on the spiritual front.

    The big questions are why then and why not now…..and why not then and why now: (1) Why a sudden revival then and not now and (2) why not a decline then and why a decline now…..the second question in particular is intriguing.

    This is all interesting — especially the national amnesia about a large block of time within most of our lifetimes.

  • Jack

    I think I’m going to pass this idea along to someone so it can be written about — ie the amnesia on all sides about a significant period in recent history. It really is interesting.

  • Larry

    You seem to miss a major part of the period. The religious remnants of the “hippie” generation which became the “Jesus Freaks”. The same group which morphed into the Mansons and People’s Temple also became the Bible thumping “religious right”. It is not so much of a revival as it was a repurposing.

    You totally misread the meaning of “God is Dead”. It was not a statement of atheism. Its a statement of religious despair and quandry. The 60’s and 70’s were a truly crappy period for America. Civil unrest, economic turmoil, decline in international reputation and power. Lack of God meant something far different than what you thought. It meant the rise of God’s adversary.

    You want a good benchmark for the beliefs, look no further than popular culture of the time. It was the age of the religious horror film (Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist, and a boatload of imitations…), you had the nonsense of Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth). Disaster films were hugely popular. “New Cinema” was producing pessimistic, gritty, films on subjects the studios generally avoided at the time. The Rolling Stones sung a tune from the point of view of the Devil for crissakes.

    Atheism wasn’t gaining much traction back then. I can only think of one atheist who is treated sympathetically in the culture of the time. Steve Landesburg’s wonky Detective Harris on Barney Miller. You totally missed that. Too busy invoking tropes of that period without a bit of background on them.

  • As one of those De-Converted NorthEast Catholics mentioned in the article I think one major cause was overlooked.

    It just turns out that God is not real.
    Why are we learning this now and not 30 years ago?

    We all can see Religion losing all of the arguments every day
    everywhere in the world.

    It isn’t just that I know that religion fails.
    It is a force multiplier that everyone knows that everyone ELSE knows!

    Even the most ignorant among us are keenly aware
    of suicide bombings, rapes, pedophila and other crimes constantly being committed by ALL religions.

    Religion is dying because finally the world can see how useless and dangerous it really is.

  • Larry,

    “look no further than popular culture of the time.”

    So true. I love this game.
    The late 60’s and early 70’s were about the dying of the beautiful dream.
    I remember.

    Vietnam, drug overdoses everywhere; and the entire culture
    seemed caught up in a poem of loss:

    “I’ll never hear the Bells” – Laura Nyro 1968
    “All Things Must Pass” – George Harrison 1971
    “My sweet Lord” – George Harrison
    “In the Ghetto” – Elvis Presley
    “Makes Me Wanna Holla” – Marvin Gaye
    “Alone Again, Naturally” – Gilbert O’Sullivan
    “Let’s Just Kiss and Say Goodbye”
    “Day by Day”- Godspell 1970
    “In the Willows There” – Godspell
    “I don’t know how to Love Him” – Jesus Christ Superstar 1973
    “Let the Sunshine in” – Hair 1969
    “It’s too late” – Carole King 1971
    “Sympathy for the Devil” – Rolling Stones 1969
    “Fire and Rain” – James Taylor

    “Me and Mrs. Jones” – Billy Paul !!

    But once we got it out of our system, by 1977 it was time to party again.
    “Saturday Night Fever” – The Bee Gees

  • Chaplain Martin

    I appreciate your comments: “I am not referring to a believe in God (still a believer); I’m referring to belief in relying on a specific religious organization for moral and ethical guidance.”

    How right your are, my believing in God has weathered all the storms of this 74 year old life.
    What has not is the institutional church, even a denomination which touts the priesthood of the believer.

  • Larry

    From the 50’s to the late 80’s one could tell the influential and popular genre films by the proliferation of imitations (usually cranked out by European studios) it spawned.

    In the 70’s, Christian horror was a biggie.

    Exorcist imitations were legion

    The Omen only got one Italian ripoff at the time
    [However it is the inspiration of the 90’s/00’s “Final Destination films” in terms of plotting and appeal]

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  • Excellent!

  • drwho13

    No, religion is not dying (that may be your wish), and that’s clear from what’s taking place in the world. I sure don’t want to be the one who tells a radical Islamist that his God is dead. I want to spend a few more years among the living.

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