The US: One nation not quite under God

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The interior of St. Roch Church in the Staten Island borough of New York is seen between Sunday morning Masses on Nov. 2, 2014. The NY Archdiocese announced last fall that, as part of a massive consolidation and closing process involving dozens of churches, masses and sacraments will no longer available on a weekly basis at St. Roch Church. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

The interior of St. Roch Church in the Staten Island borough of New York is seen between Sunday morning Masses on Nov. 2, 2014. The NY Archdiocese announced last fall that, as part of a massive consolidation and closing process involving dozens of churches, masses and sacraments will no longer available on a weekly basis at St. Roch Church. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

(RNS) Politicians often cite American “exceptionalism” and the country’s high level of religiosity when boasting about one nation under God.

But this country isn’t so unique on the faith front any more, say two sociology professors.

Their new study shows Americans steadily sliding toward secular Europe with increasingly fuzzy — or fading — ties to church, God and religious denominations.

These changes are generational, long term and unlikely to reverse course, say Mark Chaves of Duke University and David Voas of University College London, in the latest American Journal of Sociology.

You don’t have to be an academic to notice.


READVoters warm to candidates who are not religious


“You see it everywhere, even in the electoral politics where it is no longer essential for a presidential candidate to be religious,” said Voas, pointing to Donald Trump, who strikes many as what might be called a nominal Christian, and Bernie Sanders, a secular Jew.

Or you can look around at your friends and family. Everyone knows someone who is not religious and not shy any more about saying so, observed Chaves.

Their study addressed the debate among social scientists on the relationship between modernization and secularization.

Some argue, pointing to Europe, that the more developed a nation, the less religious its people. Other experts cite America as the exception because of its high rates of belief in God, church attendance and religious identification.

That’s no longer so, Chaves and Voas claim.

In discussing their findings, Chaves pointed to the rise of the “nones” – people who say they have no religious identity – from a barely noticed fraction in the 1950s to 21 percent of Americans in the 2014 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.


RELATED STORY: Christians lose ground, ‘nones’ soar in new portrait of US religion


“A society in which the least religious people still claim a religious identity is importantly different from a society in which such people admit to themselves, and even tell others, that they in fact have no religion,” Chaves and Voas write.

A summary released by Duke University highlights key findings:

  • 94 percent of Americans born before 1935 claim a religious affiliation. For the generation born after 1975, that number drops to 71 percent.
  • 68 percent of Americans 65 and older said they had no doubt God exists, according to the study. But just 45 percent of young adults, ages 18-30, had the same belief.
  • 41 percent of people 70 and older said they attend church services at least once a month, compared to just 18 percent of people 60 and younger.

And the study reports the number of people who never attend religious services has doubled in two and a half decades: It was 26 percent in 2014, up from 13 percent in 1990.

While other Western nations are even less religious than the U.S., the patterns are very much alike. Chaves and Voas did 10 charts detailing shifts in belief in God, worship attendance and religious identification for the U.S., England, Australia, New Zealand and Europe as a whole.


READ: ANALYSIS: 7.5 million Americans lost their religion since 2012


“No matter which one you look at, they all look the same — the trends are heading the same direction” toward secularization,” said Chaves.

“The evidence for a decades-long decline in American religiosity is now incontrovertible. Like the evidence for global warming, it comes from multiple sources, shows up in several dimensions, and paints a consistent factual picture,” the study says.

The authors do not speculate as to whether there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between modernization and declining religious attachment. But, said Chaves,  “We are not as exceptional as we once thought.”

(Cathy Lynn Grossman is senior national correspondent for RNS)

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  • G Key

    “…Chaves pointed to the rise of the “nones” – people who say they have no religious identity…”

    I wish researchers would reconsider their misleading methodology of lumping into the same category (1) those who believe in spiritual deity but don’t belong to a religious organization, (2) those who believe in spirituality but not deity, (3) those who believe the question of spirituality is unanswerable, (4) those who believe the question of spirituality is unimportant, (5) those who have no belief in spirituality, and (6) those who have belief in no spirituality.

    At the very least, I wish the first 2 categories were statistically tracked and reported separately from the last 4, if only to avoid the confusion (and required explanation, and frustrating ambiguity) which predictably follows the publication of “lumped” religious research results such as those cited in this article.

  • Excellent point. The “Nones” are too widely varied a group for there to be any value in discussing them collectively.

    It’s bad enough that researchers, who should know better, threw them all in one useless and meaningless pile … but what the mass media does with any mention of the “Nones” is far worse. I’ve seen a lot of articles that either imply, or state outright, that they’re “atheists,” whereas that latter group is merely a subset of the “Nones.”

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  • G Key

    For the record, Cindyrella, I’m a non-Christian, but I don’t drink, gamble, or sleep around, I do my best not to be mean or gossip, and I try to be as respectful as I can to others and their beliefs. Regardless of the barrel, there are always a few bad apples among the good ones. Peace.

  • samuel johnston

    Villages and small towns, force people into conformity. Large cities allow people to mix with those whom they choose, when they choose, and there are so many more for them to choose from. In the past Century, the USA went from large majority, settled rural, to large majority, mobile urban. Consistent religious identification was a casualty, as neighbors could no longer enforce sanctions. Instant megachurches sidetracked millions. TV faith healers flourished. Many evangelical preachers became rich.
    I suspect, but cannot prove, that the percentage of people for whom religion is a serious matter, has not changed that much. The superficial identification with any particular religious sect, however, no longer pays a dividend, so people just do not bother.

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  • patrick

    The greatest single factor in explaining the increase in ” nones ” is the Internet.

  • patrick

    @ G Key

    ” I wish researchers would reconsider their misleading methodology of lumping into the same category….”

    The specificity of your comments indicate you have read the entire report. Would you please post the website….

  • G Key

    My post refers to a number of statistical reports on original research conducted by the Pew Research Center. Here’s a link from which you can select individual reports on “religious ‘nones’ “, AKA “religiously unaffiliated”:

    http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/religiously-unaffiliated/pages/3/

  • G Key

    Regarding the 2014 General Social Survey cited in the above article, here is the link:

    http://www.norc.org/PDFs/GSS%20Reports/GSS_Religion_2014.pdf

    And here is an except from the survey’s abstract; note the last sentence:

    “The GSS has asked about religious preferences for forty-two years: ‘What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?’ The percentage answering ‘no religion’ was 21 percent in 2014, 20 percent in 2012, just 14 percent as recently as 2000, and only 8 percent in 1990. While some types of people identify with an organized religion less than others, Americans in almost every demographic group were more likely to state ‘no religion’ in 2014 than in the past. Preferring no religion is not atheism which is still very rare; in 2014, just 3 percent of Americans said they did not believe in God.”

  • CarrotCakeMan

    It was unfortunate at best for reporter Grossman to suggest those Americans who are not religious are “sliding.”

  • Doc Anthony

    This nation is in real, unprecedented trouble.

  • G Key

    I’m troubled by Chaves and Voas’s “A society in which the least religious people still claim a religious identity is importantly different from a society in which such people admit to themselves, and even tell others, that they in fact have no religion.”

    What is it that’s “importantly different” between the 2 societies?

    In describing the former society, why did they say “the least religious people” instead of just saying “everybody”? Why did they further accentuate that phrase with the emphatic “still”? (I’m reminded of Matthew 5:46.)

    In describing the latter society, why did they use the reluctance-laden “admit”, the emphasis-laden “even”, the revelation-laden “in fact”, and the (continued) ambiguity of “no religion”? (I’m reminded of Perry Mason.)

    Maybe it’s just me, but I hear an unscientific, unsubstantiated, and unwarranted value judgment aimed somewhere in the vicinity of better/worse, moral/immoral, virtuous/shameful, and innocent/guilty.

  • Ben in oakland

    And yet you continue to vote republican, continue to believe that Donald trump is the answer, and continue to think that gay marriage is part of the problem.

    Go figure.

  • Doc Anthony

    No political candidate on ANY side, can solve America’s problems. We’re living on borrowed time and mercy, Ben.

    Legalized gay marriage IS part of the problem. It’s a tipping point for divine judgment, just like with the ancient city of Sodom.

  • G Key

    Abusive, arrogant, full-of-beans, puerile, off-the-wall, off-topic, MEAN. Carla DiAngelo must’ve had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. One hopes so, since she obviously felt the need to mistreat a stranger. Shame.

  • G Key

    Just what our country needs: bidirectional intolerance.
    That is the entire problem, beautifully exemplified here.

  • Michael Glass

    Cathy Grossman is right about the fading of religious belief. Here are some reasons:
    * The sexual revolution, which overturned many traditional attitudes towards sexual behaviour.
    * The feminist revolution, which called into question many traditional assumptions about the roles of men and women.
    * Medical advances, which gave us effective birth control, a greater understanding of sexuality and steadily falling death rates.
    * Scandals, including clerical sexual abuse of minors, atrocities committed by cults (e.g., Jonestown), persecution of Muslims in the Palestinian Territories and in Myanmar, and Muslim persecution of everybody else, including fellow Muslims.

    All these things damage the standing of specific religions and also religions in general. People increasing see religious beliefs as outdated, cruel and wrong.

  • patrick

    @ Maude

    So well stated Maude – so very well stated !

  • yoh

    You can also throw in:
    *Greater religious diversity of the country, which in turn has led to…
    *Higher levels of interfaith marriage
    *The end of colonial empires means proselytizing lost government sponsorships for many faiths
    * The recognition that state sponsored religions are corrosive to democracies.
    * The information revolution punctures the insularity of ultra-conservative religious belief to the point they have to practically sequester themselves.

  • Tom

    This piece only mentions Trump and Sanders .Hillary isn’t religious as far as I know. She gets that “Southern Revival” talk going when she does go to church, but she isn’t religious. Ted Cruz is very religious and sincere about it. I appreciate that fact, but wish he would not commit so publicly about it. It has ironically hurt his image with non religious people who get turned off by him.

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