Beliefs Opinion Tobin Grant: Corner of Church and State

The Great Decline: 61 years of religiosity in one graph, 2013 hits a new low

61YearsReligiosity in the United States is in the midst of what might be called ‘The Great Decline.’ Previous declines in religion pale in comparison. Over the past fifteen years, the drop in religiosity has been twice as great as the decline of the 1960s and 1970s.

Last year brought a continuation of this decline. 2013 was a new low for the level of religiosity in the country.

How do we track this massive change in American religion? We start with information from rigorous, scientific surveys on worship service attendance, membership in congregations, prayer, and feelings toward religion. We then use a computer algorithm to track over 400 survey results over the past 60 years. The result is one measure that charts changes to religiosity through the years. (You can see all the details of the algorithm here).

The graph of this index tells the story of the rise and fall of religious activity. During the post-war, baby-booming 1950s, there was a revival of religion. Indeed, some at the time considered it a third great awakening. Then came the societal changes of the 1960s, which included a questioning of religious institutions. The resulting decline in religion stopped by the end of the 1970s, when religiosity remained steady. Over the past fifteen years, however, religion has once again declined. But this decline is much sharper than the decline of 1960s and 1970s. Church attendance and prayer is less frequent. The number of people with no religion is growing. Fewer people say that religion is an important part of their lives.

In 2013, we saw continued declines in religiosity. The importance of religion in people’s lives? Down. Church attendance? Down. People who say they are “no religion”? Up. The result: 2013 had the lowest level of religiosity of any year we can measure.

Overall, the hundreds of survey measures point to the same drop in religion: If the 1950s were another Great Awakening, this is the Great Decline.

This is an update of this original post on religiosity from 1952 through 2012. You can see details on five recent Gallup surveys here.

Geek note: Because the index is a combination of different measures with different scales, the index produced by the algorithm does not have a specific scale. The numbers in the graph are roughly analogous to percentages but not exactly the same. The index’s numbers are like degrees Fahrenheit and Celsius, which are arbitrary marks on a thermometer that show the difference between heat levels but not absolute levels of heat show by Kelvins. Differences between two points can be compared with differences between two other points, e.g., the difference between the 1960s and 1980s is a decline of about 1.5 standard deviations, but the difference between the late 1990s and 2013 is about three standard deviations. You can see all the details of how this index is measured here.


About the author

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.


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  • Why is a rise in people believing fairy tales over reality called a “Great Awakening?” That seems the opposite of what it actually was. Odd.

  • Thank you internet!!! Hopefully religion will be dead by the time I am. My grandchildren will grow up in a more enlightened and peaceful world

  • So over the past 60 years religious beliefs have declined by a little over 1% per decade or about .15% per year. This piece really goes out of its way to make this seem more significant than it really is. The graph is distorted to make the drop appear large when it really is not. While I don’t disagree with the figures or the analysis that the internet is having an effect and all that. I just think its important to point out that this has been as of yet a relatively slow moving trend and not get ahead of ourselves saying that religion is doomed. Religion is a hearty beast and this hasn’t been the first movement that threatened its existence. I do hope the trend continues though…

  • Religiosity is continuously on the decline in America. The present analysis clearly indicates that. Perhaps the trend is similar in several other nations especially the so-called Christiandom of the western world.

    But why is it happening? There is something seriously wrong with all organized religions. They lack honesty to keep the common people drawn to spirituality or spiritual awakening. They have allowed themselves to deteriorate without the radiating goodness of God.

    Perhaps, people are slowly realizing it. Perhaps it is for good.

  • @ – anyone. I’m glad to see false religiosity is dying it’s about time. I do think however faith in a Creator has grown… Maybe there is a graph somewhere for us to behold and comment on.

  • “So over the past 60 years religious beliefs have declined by a little over 1% per decade or about .15% per year.” These remarks don’t seem to make sense.

  • You can attribute that to those born in the 80’s. You can see the most recent steady drop in about 2004/2005, right during the time of adolescence or early adult hood for an 80’s kid, the time when we all begin to question our surroundings, form our own strong opinions, and rebel as much as we can. The internet was now quite common place seeding other peoples opinions and ideas. This generation instantly became more informed 10 fold than the previous generation with every Google search that was made and choose to talk about it, to share it with their friends so they too can be more informed. A chain was started, and hopefully continues for some time.

    And we thought the sixties was a time of change…

  • Awakening depends on where you are standing. 9f you are a religious person and there happens to be a upsurge in religious belief then you are likely to call it a “great Awakening”.

    if you are a rationalist and humanist the same event will just bring head shakes and call it temporary insanity. But it is important because those “awakened” can get violent if they can’t rouse everybody. Nod you head, smile and back slowly away. Cheers!

  • Actually, a lot of Christians don’t want you to analyze too deeply what transpired in the “50s”.
    The events leading to WW2 and WW2 itself caused a massive decline in religion. The “Great Awakening” was people forgetting the reasons they turned their backs on religion (You may more accurately call it the great forgetting).
    Statistics are meaningless is not truly analyzed, just propaganda to spin a tale.
    There have been other events that have both caused increases and declines in religion, the analysts consider the war and post war numbers to be invalid due to anomaly causation events, which is why these graphs start after the effects are assumed minimal. Religious pressers suggest it is just a cycle and extend back to 1939 when it was at it’s lowest, but refuse to show you prior, to present a “cycle” that suggests it is just a fad.
    The problem with all sides, is they measure a result without identifying the cause (I suspect the internet, and it is testable).

  • Definitively, it is impossible for “religion” to die. If all humanity failed to exist, creation still proves religion predominate, eternally meaningful. In that, the word “religion” is derived from the Greek “religios,” which means “to link back to;” from the Anglo-French, and Latin, “religio,” “reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of the Divine things, piety, the res divinae.” The origin of religio means to “reconnect.” Any inception, continuation and the ultimate end of any and everything material/Spiritual, it all links back to the Universe, to God. Whatever one’s response in life, instantly, definitively speaking, that’s their “religion.” In Christ, His religion, reflecting God’s Word, is the ultimate consciousness of peace, as the Prince of peace: The predominate quintessence of the Universe. The longer one lives “in peace” the longer and greater quality of life one loves living. “In the beginning was the Word…”

  • Education of the masses will save us ! “From what ?” you may ask.
    And the answer is……… from the opiate of the masses.