Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
September 2015

Religion is socially organized beliefs and practices that concern ultimate meaning and assume the existence of the supernatural.1 It’s one of our most important, popular, and controversial institutions. Religion reduces antisocial behavior and crime by encouraging adherence to norms.2 People who are religious tend to be happier.3 Many have drawn on religion to aid the oppressed and less fortunate.4 Religion also has been used to legitimate political, economic, and social inequality, and it’s been a major precipitant of war.5

Religion’s prominence owes to the fact that it fulfills three key human needs. First, it provides answers to some important questions that otherwise seem unanswerable: Does life have a purpose? Is there anything after death? In previous centuries people also looked to religion for answers to many questions that we now leave to science: Why is it raining today? Why did I get sick? Why did my child die? Second, religion helps to make life bearable for the poor and less fortunate. Religion often suggests that a person’s misery is God’s will, and it promises better fortune in the afterlife.6 Third, religion is an important source of community. Religious services and other activities provide a venue for people to meet and interact with others who share broadly similar beliefs.

There are thousands of religions around the world. The largest, with a little over 30% of the world’s population, is Christianity. The next largest, with about 23%, is Islam. Next is Hinduism with 15%, and then Buddhism with 7%.7 In the United States, Christianity is by far the dominant religion. As of 2014, 74% of Americans say their religious preference is Christianity, 1.5% say Judaism, 1% Buddhism, 0.5% Islam, 0.5% Hinduism, 1.5% “other,” and 21% “none.”8

The US is one of the most religious — perhaps the most — of the world’s rich longstanding-democratic nations. Figure 1 shows, for instance, that a comparatively large share of Americans consider religion to be very important in their lives.

Figure 1. Religion is very important in my life
Data are for 2000-2012. Question: “For each of the following, indicate how important it is in your life: religion.” Response options: very important, rather important, not very important, not at all important, no answer. Data source: World Values Survey,

Scholars have long predicted that religion would eventually be displaced by science. As we learn more and more about how the world works, there is less need to resort to belief in a divine being. And as science enables greater economic productivity, want and misery decrease, reducing the need for religion as a salve.

This secularization hypothesis has considerable empirical support. In nations that have experienced significant economic growth over the past century, particularly those that have created public insurance programs to ensure that some of the growth reaches the most vulnerable, religiosity has tended to decline.9 We also can see this if we compare across countries at a given point in time. Figure 2 shows that fewer people are very religious in nations that are richer. Figure 3 shows that the same is true across the US states. There are exceptions, but in both graphs the overall pattern is clear.

Figure 2. Religiosity by economic affluence across countries
55 nations. The line is a linear regression line, calculated with Kuwait and Qatar excluded. Religiosity is the share of the population that says “religion is very important in my life” as of 2010-2014. Survey question: “For each of the following, indicate how important it is in your life: religion.” Response options: very important, rather important, not very important, not at all important, no answer. Data source: World Values Survey, GDP per capita in 2007. In purchasing-power-parity-adjusted dollars. Data source: World Bank.

Figure 3. Religiosity by economic affluence across the US states
Data are for 2013. The line is a linear regression line. Very religious: share of the adult population that says religion is an important part of their daily lives and attends religious services every week or almost every week. Data source: Frank Newport, “Mississippi Most Religious State, Vermont Least Religious,” Gallup, 2014. GSP per capita: gross state product per person. Data source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Figure 4. Religiosity by economic affluence across individuals in the US
2010-2014. “k” = thousand. Some religious affiliation: 100 minus the share responding “no religion” to the following question: “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” Data source: General Social Survey,, series relig, coninc.

However, the United States is a noticeable exception to the pattern in figure 2; it’s one of the richest nations, yet it’s also relatively religious. And if we compare across individuals within the US, there is little association between income and religiosity, as figure 4 shows.10 Moreover, in some respects religion seems to be on the rise in America rather than in decline: megachurches are everywhere and the Christian right is an influential force in politics.

Is the US an exception to the secularization tendency, as some contend?11 If it isn’t an exception, what exactly is it that’s declining — religiosity, religious organizations, religion’s influence? Will America and Americans be worse off if religion weakens?


Americans have long been exceptionally religious, and they remain so. For instance12:

  • Nearly nine in ten Americans pray.
  • Eight in ten are affiliated with a religious tradition or denomination.
  • More than half say they know God exists.
  • Approximately half say religion is very important in their life.
  • Just shy of half believe life is meaningful only because God exists.
  • Nearly half say they’ve tried to convince others to accept Jesus Christ.
  • About four in ten attend religious services monthly or more often.
  • More than three in ten say they read the Bible at least weekly.
  • More Americans feel religion is very important in their life than is the case in any other affluent democratic country (figure 1 above).

Yet trends in a number of indicators suggest we are becoming less religious over time.

Public opinion surveys regularly ask American adults what their religious preference or affiliation is. As figure 5 shows, until around 1990, 95% or more responded with some preference, as opposed to “none.” But in the 1990s the share with some affiliation began to decline, and by 2014 it had fallen to 80%, according to the General Social Survey.13

Figure 5. Some religious affiliation
Gallup question: “What is your religious preference — Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, another religion, or no religion?” Data source: Gallup, “Religion,” GSS question: “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” Data source: General Social Survey,, series relig. The figures shown here are calculated as 100 minus the share who respond “no religion.”

Surveys frequently ask Americans how important religion is in their life. Figure 6 shows the share responding “very important.” The share dropped significantly between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s. It then leveled off. In the 2000s another decline commenced, though surveys differ regarding how sharp this recent decline has been.

Figure 6. Religion is very important in my life
Gallup question: “How important would you say religion is in your own life — very important, fairly important, or not very important?” Data source: Frank Newport, “In U.S., Four in 10 Report Attending Church in Last Week,”, 2013. Pew question: “How important is religion in your life — very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not at all important?” Data source: Pew Research Center, “The American-Western European Values Gap,” 2011, p. 23, Q118. World Values Survey (WVS) question: “For each of the following, indicate how important it is in your life: religion.” Response options: very important, rather important, not very important, not at all important, no answer. Data source: World Values Survey,

Figure 7 shows the share of Americans who report that they attend religious services — church, synagogue, mosque, temple — once a month or more. This was true of around 55% in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the late 1980s the share has been falling slowly but steadily, down to 43% in 2014.14 Other data sources suggest a decline that began in the 1960s.15

Figure 7. Attend religious services once a month or more
Question: “How often do you attend religious services?” Data source: General Social Survey,, series attend.

When the General Social Survey has asked Americans about their belief in God, more than half respond “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.” As figure 8 reveals, this number has slowly but steadily decreased since the early 1990s.

Figure 8. I know God exists
Question: “Please look at this card and tell me which statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about God: (1) I don’t believe in God. (2) I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out. (3) I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind. (4) I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others. (5) While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God. (6) I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.” Data source: General Social Survey,, series god.

Figure 9 shows the share who say they pray at least sometimes. Until the early 2000s this was true of virtually all Americans. It’s still true of most, but the share has fallen to about 85% as of 2014.

Figure 9. Pray sometimes
Question: “About how often do you pray?” The figures shown here are calculated as 100 minus the share who say they never pray. Data source: General Social Survey,, series pray.

Each of the indicators in figures 5 through 9 tells a story of declining religiosity in the United States. The timing differs somewhat, and none of the changes in recent decades has been massive, but together they support a conclusion that Americans have been following the pattern of secularization visible in all other rich democratic nations.

Actually, these data understate the decline. Most of them don’t go back far enough in time to allow us to see the full extent of change. Also, a rise in immigration by Catholic Latinos since the mid-1960s has masked the extent of the decrease in religiosity among native-born Americans. The clearest way to see the degree to which religiosity has diminished is to focus on native-born Americans and to separate them by cohort.16 Figure 10 does this for religious service attendance. Each line in the graph shows the share in a cohort who report attendance at least once a month. The cohorts are identified by birth decade. In each cohort, church attendance tends to be stable throughout the life course. But it has decreased from one cohort to the next. Of those born between 1915 and 1924, about 60% attended once a month or more. Among those born between 1985 and 1994, only 35% do. The same pattern holds for intensity of religious affiliation and for belief in God (not shown here).17

Figure 10. Attend religious services once a month or more
Each line is for a cohort, with birth years listed to the right. The lines are linear regression lines. Excludes respondents who didn’t live in the US at age 16. Question: “How often do you attend religious services?” Data source: General Social Survey,, series attend.

David Voas and Mark Chaves, authors of an informative empirical study of trends in religiosity in the United States and other rich nations, conclude as follows18:

“Religiosity has been declining in the United States for decades, albeit slowly and from high levels…. Religious commitment is weakening from one generation to the next, and these generational differences are the main proximate cause of the aggregate decline. The weakening seems to have begun with cohorts born early in the 20th century. At least since then, strong religious affiliation, church attendance, and firm belief in God all have fallen from one birth cohort to the next. None of these declines is happening fast, and levels of religious involvement in the United States remain high by world standards. But the signs of both aggregate decline and generational differences are now unmistakable….

“Most research that compares American religion with religion elsewhere emphasizes the high levels of participation in the United States, and treats those high levels as strong evidence that the U.S. is a decisive counterexample to the secularization thesis. We have focused on trends, and we have maintained that both the now-clear fact of religious decline in the United States and the cohort-driven nature of that decline show that the U.S. should no longer be considered a counterexample. On the contrary, religious change in the United States is very similar to religious change elsewhere: there is long-term decline produced mainly by generational replacement. This process operates slowly, and it can be counteracted in the short term by short-lived revivals, but it is very difficult to reverse. Children are raised by parents who are less religious than their parents were, and the culture is gradually reshaped with the passing of each successive generation.”

Three additional developments suggest that the decline in religiosity in the US is likely to continue. First, a steadily rising share of (white) Americans raised with no religious affiliation — a group often referred to as “nones” — end up as “nones” themselves. Using data from the General Social Survey, Robert Putnam and David Campbell have calculated that half a century ago 70% to 80% of those raised as Catholics, mainline Protestants, or evangelical Protestants remained in that tradition, whereas only 30% of those raised as “nones” did so. But religious inheritance — following in your parents’ footsteps — then began to rise among “nones.” By the 1990s it had reached parity with Catholics and Protestants, and in the 2000s it passed them, with 80% inheritance among “nones” versus 60% to 70% among Protestants and Catholics.19

Second, a growing number of Americans have one or more close nonreligious friends. Drawing on a repeated large-scale survey of American religion, Putnam and Campbell discovered that as of 2011 a majority of Americans have at least one close friend who is “not religious.” This was more true among the young than among the old, but for all age groups there was a sizable increase compared to just five years earlier.20

Third, in the same 2011 survey, Putnam and Campbell found that religious Americans have a much “colder” view (on a “feeling thermometer”) of “atheists” than of “nonreligious” persons, presumably because an atheists hold beliefs that explicitly challenge their own whereas a nonreligious person might simply be uncertain. However, this difference in feelings about atheists versus the nonreligious is much less pronounced among younger Americans.21

These developments may put a floor under the share of Americans who are nonreligious, ensuring that this share doesn’t decrease going forward. Of perhaps even greater import, they suggest that the stigma associated with nonreligiousness (perhaps even atheism) might be evaporating, which could accelerate the turn away from religion.


If religiosity among Americans has been declining, is the same true of religious organizations? Most of the older, established religious organizations in the United States have indeed been shrinking over the past half century. The Catholic Church, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have all lost membership.

But the story is more complicated. While the shrinking of the largest, most established religious organizations owes partly to the general decrease in religiosity among Americans, it’s also a product of a cycle process — a replacement of older organizations by newer ones.22

According to the cycle hypothesis, religious organizations are similar to business firms. They have customers — their members — whose needs they must fulfill in order to keep their business. Many (though not all) new religious organizations begin by focusing on the needs of the poor and oppressed. The principal need religion fills for these sorts of people is to provide assurance that they will be better off in the afterlife. If the organization survives and begins to grow, however, the socioeconomic composition of its membership will gradually shift. As it becomes more established, the proportion of middle-class and affluent members it has will increase. These members have much less need than lower-class members to reject this world in favor of the next. Indeed, they will want to harmonize their religious beliefs with their own worldly success; they don’t want to be told that being wealthy in this life will put you at the end of the line in the afterlife. Over time, therefore, the religious organization will cease to emphasize the afterlife.

This shift will erode the organization’s ability to satisfy the religious needs of its lower-class members. Eventually, these members will defect to form a spinoff religious organization (a “sect”) that emphasizes the afterlife. Or in some cases they will join an entirely new religious organization.

The pattern of religious membership in the United States over the past half century is consistent with the cycle notion. Older American religious organizations have a larger share of high-income members than do newer ones.23 And as figure 11 shows, older organizations have tended to decline in membership over the past half century, while some relatively new ones, such as the Southern Baptist Convention (a Baptist sect that split from the National Baptist Convention in 1845), the Mormons (founded in 1830), and the Assemblies of God (a Pentecostal denomination founded in 1914), have seen membership increases.24

Figure 11. Membership in religious organizations
Membership as a share of the US population. UMC = United Methodist Church. SBC = Southern Baptist Convention. NBC-USA = National Baptist Convention (USA). Presb = Presbyterian Church (USA). NBC-A = National Baptist Convention of America. LCMS = Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. UCC = United Church of Christ. CC = Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Mormon = Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. AG = Assemblies of God. Data source: Association of Religion Data Archives.

At the same time, it bears emphasizing that this cycle process has been operating in a context of overall religious decline. The membership losses of older religious organizations have exceeded the gains of newer ones.


On issues such as prayer in school, premarital sex, out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and suicide, more-religious and less-religious Americans tend to differ sharply in their views.25 Have public opinion, public policy, and actual practice on these issues shifted with religion or against it in recent decades?

In 1962 and 1963, the US Supreme Court ruled that public schools can’t require prayer or reading of religious verses. Many religious authorities and ordinary Americans disagreed with these decisions, but the decisions haven’t been reversed or significantly amended. Public opinion on this issue has held steady. As figure 12 shows, around 40% of Americans approved of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the mid-1970s and roughly the same share do today.

Figure 12. Public schools shouldn’t be allowed to require prayer or religious readings
Share of US adults. Question: “The United States Supreme Court has ruled that no state or local government may require the reading of the Lord’s Prayer or Bible verses in public schools. What are your views on this — do you approve or disapprove of the court ruling?” Data source: General Social Survey,, series prayer.

Many religious Americans also want “creationism” — the notion that God created humans, and that we didn’t evolve from other species — to be taught in public schools. A Pew Research Center poll in 2006 found about 35% favor teaching evolution alone, while 60% favor teaching both evolution and creationism.26 Unfortunately, there aren’t good over-time data, so we don’t know how, if at all, views on this issue have changed.

For many religious Americans, family and marriage are core institutions. And they are linked: a proper family, in this view, requires marriage. They also are tied to sex: sex is seen as appropriate for married adults. However, about three-fourths of Americans believe sex before marriage isn’t wrong. As figure 13 indicates, the share was only 24% at the end of the 1960s but then jumped to around 50% by the early 1970s. By the early 1980s it had risen to about 60%. It remained at that level in the 1980s and 1990s before rising further in the 2000s.

Figure 13. Premarital sex isn’t wrong
Source for Gallup data: David J. Harding and Christopher Jencks, “Changing Attitudes Toward Premarital Sex: Cohort, Period, and Aging Effects,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 2003. GSS question: “If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” The line shows the share responding “not wrong at all” or “wrong only sometimes.” Data source: General Social Survey,, series premarsx.

Religious organizations and leaders have tended to frown on births that occur outside marriage. Figure 14 shows, however, that the share of babies born to unmarried parents has exploded in the past half century. Data on Americans’ views don’t go back very far in time, but as figure 15 reveals, a solid majority now view out-of-wedlock births as not morally wrong, up from fewer than half at the end of the 1990s.

Figure 14. Out-of-wedlock births
Share of children born to unmarried women. Data source: National Center for Health Statistics.

Figure 15. Having a child out of wedlock isn’t morally wrong
Share of US adults. Question: “I’m going to read you a list of issues. Regardless of whether or not you think it should be legal, for each one, please tell me whether you personally believe that in general it is morally acceptable or morally wrong. How about having a baby outside of marriage?” Data source: Gallup, “Gallup Poll Social Series: Values and Beliefs,” 2014.

Divorce, too, is discouraged by many religions and religious authorities. Figure 16 shows that the divorce rate in the United States rose sharply in the 1960s and 1970s but then reversed course, although part of the post-1970s decline owes to the fact that fewer Americans are marrying. Figure 17 shows that a majority of Americans think it shouldn’t be more difficult to obtain a divorce. Opinion on this issue hasn’t changed since the General Social Survey began asking this question in the mid-1970s.

Figure 16. Divorce
Divorces as a share of married couples. Data source: Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and Their Driving Forces,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2007, figure 1, using Census Bureau data.

Figure 17. Divorce shouldn’t be more difficult to obtain
Share of US adults. Question: “Should divorce in this country be easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?” Response options: easier, stay same, more difficult. Data source: General Social Survey,, series divlaw.

According to the Bible, homosexuality is wrong. Until recently, many Americans agreed. But public opinion on this issue has shifted dramatically, as figure 18 shows. A healthy majority now view homosexuality as not wrong.

Even more objectionable to religious traditionalists is same-sex marriage. Here too, though, we see a surge in public opinion in the opposite direction. By 2014 a majority of Americans agreed that lesbians and gays should be allowed to marry, as figure 19 shows. The Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling extended that right to all 50 states.

Figure 18. Homosexuality isn’t wrong
GSS question: “What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex? Do you think it is wrong or not wrong?” Response options: always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong sometimes, not wrong at all. The line shows the share responding “not wrong at all” or “wrong sometimes.” Data source: General Social Survey,, series homosex. Gallup question: “Regardless of whether or not you think it should be legal, for each one, please tell me whether you personally believe that in general it is morally acceptable or morally wrong. How about gay or lesbian relations?” Response options: morally acceptable, morally wrong, depends on situation, not a moral issue, no opinion. The line shows the share responding “morally acceptable,” with “no opinion” excluded. Data source: Gallup, “Gallup Poll Social Series: Values and Beliefs,” 2015, question 18.

Figure 19. Same-sex marriage should be legal
GSS question: “Do you agree or disagree: homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another?” Response options: strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, strongly disagree. The line shows the share who strongly agree or agree. Data source: General Social Survey,, series marhomo. Pew question: “Do you strongly favor, favor, oppose, or strongly oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally?” The line shows the share who strongly favor or favor. Data source: Pew Research Center, “Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage,”, 2015.

Since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, many religious organizations and leaders have advocated overturning the decision or in other ways restricting access to abortion. As figure 20 indicates, they’ve made little headway in shifting public opinion. The share of Americans who think abortion should be legal regardless of why the woman wants it has held constant at 35-45%. The actual incidence of abortion has, however, fallen steadily since 1980, as figure 21 shows. It isn’t clear what has caused the fall in abortion, but likely contributors include reduced sexual activity among teens and women in their early twenties, increased use of contraceptives, greater use of contraceptives that are more effective, reduced access to abortion clinics, and state laws mandating counseling or waiting periods.27

Figure 20. Abortion should be legal regardless of why the woman wants it
Share of US adults. Question: “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman wants it for any reason?” Data source: General Social Survey,, series abany.

Figure 21. Abortions
Data sources: Rachel K. Jones and Kathryn Kooistra, “Abortion Incidence and Access to Services in the United States, 2008,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2011, table 1; Rachel K. Jones and Jenna Jerman, “Abortion Incidence and Service Availability in the United States, 2011,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2014, table 1.

Many religious traditions consider suicide to be immoral. Yet as figure 22 shows, since the late 1970s the share Americans who believe that at least in some circumstances people have a right to end their life has increased. Around 60% now hold this view.

Figure 23 shows opinions about whether doctors should be allowed to assist in ending a person’s life. Since the question was first asked in the mid-1990s, a majority has been in favor. Between 2000 and 2012 that majority shrank steadily, but in the past few years it has risen again, returning by 2015 to its previous high of more than 70%.

Figure 22. A person with an incurable disease has a right to commit suicide
Share of US adults. GSS question: “Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person has an incurable disease?” Response options: yes, no. Data source: General Social Survey,, series suicide1. Pew question: “Do you think a person has a moral right to end his or her own life when this person has a disease that is incurable?” Response options: yes, no, don’t know. Don’t know responses are omitted. Data source: Pew Research Center, “Views on End of Life Medical Treatments,” 2013, p. 83.

Figure 23. Doctor-assisted suicide should be legal
Share of US adults. Question: “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?” Response options: should, should not, no opinion. No opinion responses are excluded. Data source: Andrew Dugan, “In U.S., Support Up for Doctor-Assisted Suicide,” Gallup, 2015.

On the whole, religion’s influence does seem to have declined over the past half century.

To some, this will be surprising given the prominence of the “Religious Right” in recent decades. The Religious Right is a fusion of conservative Christianity (mainly Protestantism) and political conservatism. Most members believe their basic politics can be drawn from the Bible, and many see the goal of their political activity as restoring the United States as a “Christian nation.” The movement began in the late 1970s, coalescing in response to the Supreme Court decisions limiting school prayer and legalizing abortion and to the dramatic changes in American family life that began in the 1960s. Key organizations have included Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Pat Robertson’s Freedom Council, and the Christian Coalition.

The Religious Right has won control of some local school boards, it is an important player in the Republican Party in some states, and at one point it held considerable sway within the House of Representatives via sympathetic Republicans. Yet on much of its agenda, it has lost ground. In part, this is because the Religious Right faces a problem common to sectarian groups: the source of its energy and growth — its quest to restore a Christian “golden age” in morality and politics — is also the source of its lack of wider appeal.28 Indeed, despite enthusiasm, charismatic leadership, ample funding, and considerable media attention, evangelical Christians, from whom most of the Religious Right are drawn, haven’t gained adherents in recent decades. They’ve held steady at 25-30% of Americans since the early 1970s.29 Moreover, many Americans disapprove of efforts by religious conservatives to influence government policy. In 1991, 52% agreed that “Religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions.” In 1998, the next time the question was asked, the share had increased to 60%. In 2008 it was 67%.30

More generally, on issues such as the family and sexuality, religious traditionalists are pushing against powerful social, economic, and demographic shifts. In other affluent nations these changes have contributed to a large and sustained decline in religion’s influence on belief and behavior. Though the process began later here in the United States and has occurred more slowly, we do appear to be traveling down this same road.


For many Americans, religion is a path to community. It isn’t just about belief in God, or in heaven and hell. It’s also about attending services regularly with people who share a similar worldview. It’s about listening, in the company of those people, to a sermon on how to be a better person, how to live a better life, how to overcome adversity. It’s about chatting with friends and acquaintances during an after-service coffee hour or brunch. And for quite a few it includes participating in other activities with a subset of those fellow congregants — a Bible study class, a church choir or softball team, a youth support group, a regular potluck dinner, a food drive for the poor, a cleanup of a local park. According to one estimate, “nearly half of all associational memberships in America are church related … and half of all volunteering occurs in a religious context.”31 Humans long for community — for belonging, for sharing, for the “collective effervescence”32 of communal ritual. Religion helps to supply it.

Have changes in American religion in recent decades altered the degree to which it enhances community? Let’s consider four hypotheses: (1) The fall in religious attendance reduces community. (2) The rise of megachurches diminishes community. (3) Religious intolerance weakens community. (4) Religious polarization decreases community by increasing political polarization.

Begin with the fall in attendance at religious services. As noted above, the decline has been slow, but it is real and significant (figures 7 and 11). Approximately 55% of Americans born before 1945 attend once a month or more. Among baby boomers, those born between 1945 and 1964, about 45% do. Among Americans born since 1965, only 35% do. These numbers tend to remain constant throughout the life course. Given this significant reduction in regular attendance, it’s very unlikely that religion provides as much community as it used to.

A second significant change in religious participation in recent decades is the rise of megachurches — churches with more than 2,000 members. Does this shift mean small and medium-sized bodies where Americans recognize and interact with their fellow congregants are being replaced by big, impersonal productions where the pastor entertains and the churchgoers are passive spectators?

Possibly, but it isn’t clear that megachurches have in fact had this effect. For one thing, although they have risen rapidly and have become an important part of the religious landscape in America, their growth has been more modest than is sometimes thought. For most Protestant denominations, the share of total membership that is in the largest 1% of churches increased by only five percentage points between 1980 and the mid-2000s, from approximately 10% to 15%.33 And the median congregation size, around 75, didn’t change between the late 1990s and the late 2000s.34 Furthermore, the fact that you can’t possibly know all of your fellow congregants in a megachurch doesn’t preclude knowing some of them quite well, and many megachurches create mechanisms to facilitate that kind of interaction, such as small groups, volunteer activities, and committees.35

Third, by encouraging adherents to believe in their particular version of the “one true faith,” religious traditions, denominations, and congregations can impede our sense of broader community. If I’m a Protestant and you’re a Catholic, I may get the impression from my church that you’re mistaken in your views about God and about moral behavior. The same is true if I’m a Jew and you’re a Muslim, if I’m an evangelical Protestant while you’re a mainline Protestant, or if I’m religious and you’re an atheist. To what degree does religion in America impede community across religions? And has it gotten worse in recent decades?

The available evidence suggests that things actually have gotten better rather than worse. Americans have become more, not less, accepting of religions other than their own. According to Mark Chaves,36

“Increasing religious intermarriage probably is the best indicator of this increased tolerance and even appreciation, but it shows up in other ways as well. The percentage of Americans who say they would vote for an otherwise qualified Catholic, Jew, or atheist who was running for president has increased dramatically since the middle of the twentieth century, to the point where today almost all say they would vote for a Catholic or Jew, and about half say they would vote for an atheist…. Today, three-quarters of Americans say ‘yes’ when asked if they believe there is any religion other than their own that offers a true path to God; 70 percent say that religions other than their own can lead to eternal life; … only about 1 in 3 Americans believes that the Bible is the ‘actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,’ and that number has been declining for decades….

“American Christians are much more suspicious of Muslims than of Jews … and they still are more wary of atheists than of people who believe in a God different than their own. Even more troubling, outbursts of anti-Muslim sentiment, vandalism, and violence have increased since 2001, and there are signs that the general public’s suspicion of Muslims also has increased. At the same time, however, we should not overlook the powerful dynamic that increases appreciation of other people’s religion over the long term: increased religious diversity within our families and friendship circles. It seems likely that it will take several decades, maybe longer, for this dynamic to make non-Muslim Americans as tolerant and appreciative of American Muslims as they already are of persons of other religions, and dramatic events here or abroad could slow or, in the extreme, undermine this dynamic. But I expect that, in the long run, we will see levels of tolerance and even appreciation of American Muslims that approach the levels we currently see for persons of other religions.”

What about tolerance on the part of the nonreligious? As religious participation and religion’s sway have diminished, have nonreligious Americans become more aggressive in trying to hasten that decline? Proponents of this view point to the Supreme Court’s trifecta of “anti-religion” rulings — its early 1960s prohibition of mandatory prayer in school, its 1973 legalization of abortion, and its 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage. They point to sharp declines in Americans’ confidence in religious leaders.37 They posit an effort to rid the country of religious symbolism, from removal of “Ten Commandments” statues in government buildings to a “war on Christmas,” and they accuse Hollywood and the television industry of disparaging the traditional family.

There is some truth in this portrait. But the decline of religion’s influence in the United States surely stems less from a concerted effort by cultural and political elites than from heightened affluence, scientific advance, and improved access to information. To take just one example, the notion that homosexuality is “wrong” could no more survive as a norm in a world with plentiful information than could the notion that persons with dark skin or two X chromosomes are inferior.

A fourth way religion might impede community is via politics. Since the early 1990s, the correlation between religiosity and political views has increased in the US. The most religious Americans are increasingly likely to be politically conservative and to identify with the Republican Party, while the least religious are increasingly likely to be politically liberal and to identify with the Democratic Party.38 At the same time, the two political parties have polarized in their policy commitments and behavior.39 Oppositional rhetoric and posturing by members of both parties have intensified. Has religion, then, weakened community by contributing to political polarization?

Yes, it has, but its role in this development probably has been much smaller than many people think. Though the correlation between religiosity and political views has increased, it actually is relatively weak. And the correlation between religiosity and party preference is even weaker.40 Furthermore, party polarization began in the 1960s and 1970s, well before religion began to have an impact. And party polarization has a number of other causes, many of them arguably more significant than religion.41


Religion, in the view of some, is a key source of beliefs, norms, and behaviors that have made the United States one of history’s most successful experiments.42 Can the country thrive with less religion?

Since Max Weber, some social scientists have viewed religion — specifically, Protestantism — as conducive to a vibrant economy.43 Will religious decline dampen economic growth? America’s growth rate has been slower in recent decades than it was during religion’s post-second world war apex. But the 1950s and 1960s was a period of unusually rapid economic growth in all rich nations, due to catching up in the wake of the Great Depression and the war. Our slowdown is comparable to that of other countries. Furthermore, a number of rich nations in which religion is far weaker nevertheless have thriving economies.44

Will religious decline cause antisocial behavior to increase? In the 1960s and 1970s, as religious belief and participation began to decrease, the crime rate in the US exploded. But it’s unlikely that the trend in religiosity played much of a causal role, if any. For one thing, the crime increase began before the shift in religiosity. For another, although the decline in religiosity has continued, crime peaked in the early 1990s and has since plummeted. Finally, other affluent nations that are much less religious have similar or lower rates of crime than the US.45

Across individuals, religion is positively correlated with health. Will Americans’ health suffer as religion declines? That’s possible, but there is good cause for optimism. Life expectancy and most other measures of health have improved sharply over the past generation as religion has been weakening. One notable exception is obesity, but that has been rising in nearly all affluent countries, not just in the US. Across the rich nations there is no association between religiosity and life expectancy. Indeed, at the extremes the correlation runs in the other direction: Japan, one of the least religious countries, has the highest life expectancy, while the United States has the lowest.46

Tolerance is another hallmark of a good society. Here too there is reason for optimism. By virtually every measure, Americans have become more tolerant during the era of religious decline.47

In the United States, persons who are more religious tend to give more to charity and volunteer more of their time.48 Will life be worse for America’s poor if religion continues to weaken? If nothing steps in to fill the void, that’s quite possible. But if we continue the course we’ve pursued over the past century, of slowly replacing private charity with public insurance, America’s poor might end up better off rather than worse. Incomes among the poor are higher in a number of rich nations that are less religious than the US, and they have less material hardship.49

Americans who are more religious tend to be happier than those who are less religious. Religion’s decline might, then, be partly to blame for why average happiness in the US hasn’t increased over the past four decades despite growing affluence.50 On the other hand, a number of rich countries with low levels of religiosity score higher than we do on measures of happiness. As figure 24 shows, across these countries there is no association between religiosity and life satisfaction.

Figure 24. Life satisfaction by religiosity
The line is a linear regression line. Life satisfaction in 2008. Scale is 0 to 10. Data source: Gallup World Poll, via the World Database of Happiness, series O-SLW-c-sq-n-11-a. Religiosity is the share of the adult population that says “religion is very important in my life” as of 2000-2012. Survey question: “For each of the following, indicate how important it is in your life: religion.” Response options: very important, rather important, not very important, not at all important, no answer. Data source: World Values Survey,

Community is the desideratum most likely to suffer if religion continues to decline in America. As various observers have pointed out, religion is the single biggest contributor to social engagement and civic participation in the United States. It isn’t clear what might substitute for it.


Religious belief and participation and religion’s influence are stronger in the United States than in other rich democratic nations. They also are declining. The causes of this decline are the same as elsewhere: the ability of science to answer complex questions has advanced, greater access to information and exposure to other types of people and cultures causes us to question traditional religious dictums (women shouldn’t be leaders, homosexuality is “unnatural”), and greater affluence reduces the need of those at the bottom to focus on the afterlife. This secularization process is unlikely to halt.

Where religion has stood in the way of justice, fairness, or opportunity, its decline is a source of progress. But religion has many beneficial effects as well, not least its contribution to community. In the United States, church (or temple, synagogue, mosque) attendance and participation in religious organizations’ other activities has long been a key source of community. To the extent religion’s decline continues, that will be a significant loss. Yet developments in the US over the past half century and in other affluent countries suggest that in other respects, including economic dynamism, safety, health, tolerance, economic security, and happiness, America and Americans can flourish as the nation becomes more secular.

  1. Rodney Stark, Sociology, Cengage, 2007. 
  2. Religions explain why certain norms exist and why they should be obeyed. Why shouldn’t we steal or kill? Because God says it is wrong, and may punish you (with eternal damnation) if you commit these acts. 
  3. Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout, The Truth about Conservative Christians, University of Chicago Press, 2006, ch. 10; Robert D. Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Simon and Schuster, 2010. 
  4. Jesus helped to organize the people of Palestine against the Roman empire. Black Baptist churches played a key role in supporting the civil rights movement. Buddhist organizations have spoken out against dictatorial regimes in Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Tibet) during the past several decades. In the 1980s a growing number of Catholics in Latin America associated themselves with the “liberation theology” movement, which emphasizes the injustice of political and economic repression in that region. For more, see Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, ch. 8. 
  5. For hundreds of years the Christian Church decreed that the kings who ruled cities and nations in Europe did so by “divine right” — that is, they were chosen by God to rule. Islam supports the rule of monarchies throughout the Middle East today. Feudalism was supported by the Roman Church throughout the Middle Ages. Southern Protestant ministers before the Civil War used scripture to defend slavery. The Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa supported that nation’s policy of apartheid. Hinduism supports the Indian caste system by teaching that an individual who tries to change her/his caste will come back in the next life as a member of a lower caste (or even as an animal). In the Crusades of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, Christian armies from western Europe attempted to reconquer the “Holy Lands” from the Muslims. A number of wars in Europe over the past 1,000 years pitted Protestants against Catholics. Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu-dominated India fought periodic religious-based wars between 1950 and the mid-1970s. In the Iran-Iraq war of the early 1980s, each side used its version of Islam as justification for trying to massacre the other. Militant Islamist movements today engage in terrorism in the name of Allah. 
  6. If you believe that this life is only a brief prelude to the afterlife and that you will find relief from your pains in the more perfect world to come, you can more easily bear life’s burdens. Indeed, religions sometimes teach that if you spurn material pleasures, you will increase your rewards in the afterlife — that the social order will be turned upside down in the next life, where, as the Bible puts it, “the first shall be last, and the last, first.” 
  7. Pew Research Center, “The Global Religious Landscape,” 2012, p. 9. 
  8. General Social Survey,, series relig. 
  9. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular, Cambridge University Press, 2011; David Voas, “The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe,” European Sociological Review, 2009; David Voas and Stefanie Doebler, “Secularization in Europe: Religious Change Between and Within Birth Cohorts,” Journal of Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe, 2011. 
  10. Nor is there a noteworthy association between education and religiosity. See Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 2015, p. 14. 
  11. Peter Berger, Grace Davie, and Effie Fokas, Religious America, Secular Europe?, Ashgate, 2008; John Torpey, “American Exceptionalism?,” in The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion, edited by Brian S. Turner, Blackwell, 2010; Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown, Religion and Politics in the United States, 6th edition, Rowman and Littlefield, 2011. 
  12. General Social Survey,, series pray, relig, god, godmeans, save soul, attend, readword. The “religion is very important” figure is from Gallup. 
  13. Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer, “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations,” American Sociological Review, 2002. 
  14. “Google searches for churches are 15 percent lower in the first half of this decade than they were during the last half of the previous one.” Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, “Googling for God, New York Times, 2015. 
  15. “Time diaries also register a decline in the decades before 1990, from approximately 40 percent in 1965 to about 27 percent in 1993. This is reinforced by studies that track attendance trends among children and those that compare attendance rates among young people at different points in time.” Mark Chaves, American Religion, ch. 3. 
  16. David Voas and Mark Chaves, “Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?,” unpublished, 2014. 
  17. Voas and Chaves, “Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?” 
  18. Voas and Chaves, “Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?” 
  19. Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, figure 5.2. See also Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987–2012,” Sociological Science, 2014. 
  20. Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, epilogue. 
  21. Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, epilogue. 
  22. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, 1929; Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, Rutgers University Press, 1992. 
  23. James Henslin, Sociology, Pearson, 2011. 
  24. A Pew Research Center study finds that the membership share of two of these three — the Southern Baptist Convention and the Mormons — declined between 2007 and 2014. Pew, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” 
  25. For data on differences in views between the most-religious and least-religious Americans on these issues, see Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, ch. 1; Chaves, American Religion, ch. 9. Another potential candidate is women’s roles, but there is less difference on this issue than some think; see Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, ch. 8. 
  26. Pew Research Center, “On Darwin’s 200th Birthday, Americans Still Divided About Evolution,” 2009. 
  27. Rachel K. Jones and Jenna Jerman, “Abortion Incidence and Service Availability in the United States, 2011,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2014. 
  28. Chaves, American Religion, ch. 2. 
  29. Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, figure 4.4; Chaves, American Religion, figure 7.1. Evangelicals have increased as a share of religious Americans, but that is because other large groups, most notably Catholics and mainline Protestants, have shrunk. 
  30. General Social Survey,, series clerggov. 
  31. Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, 2000, p. 66. See also Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, ch. 13. 
  32. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912. 
  33. Chaves, American Religion, figure 5.5 
  34. Chaves, American Religion, ch. 5. 
  35. Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, ch. 2. 
  36. Chaves, American Religion, chs. 2, 7. 
  37. Chaves, American Religion, ch. 6. 
  38. Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion, Princeton University Press, 1988; Putnam and Campbell, American Grace; Chaves, American Religion, ch. 9. 
  39. Lane Kenworthy, “Political Polarization,” The Good Society. 
  40. Chaves, American Religion, ch. 9. 
  41. Kenworthy, “Political Polarization.”  
  42. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America; Putnam, Bowling Alone; Charles Murray, Coming Apart, Crown, 2012. 
  43. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro, “Religion and Economy,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2006. 
  44. Lane Kenworthy, “Economic Growth,” The Good Society. 
  45. Lane Kenworthy, “Safety,” The Good Society. 
  46. Lane Kenworthy, “Weight Moderation,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Longevity,” The Good Society. 
  47. Lane Kenworthy, “Tolerance,” The Good Society. This pattern holds in western Europe too; see Loek Halman and Erik van Ingen, “Secularization and Changing Moral Views: European Trends in Church Attendance and Views on Homosexuality, Divorce, Abortion, and Euthanasia,” European Sociological Review, 2015. 
  48. Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, ch. 13. 
  49. Lane Kenworthy, Progress for the Poor, Oxford University Press, 2011; Kenworthy, Social Democratic America, Oxford University Press, 2014. 
  50. Lane Kenworthy, “Happiness,” The Good Society.