US Religiosity In Decline

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by Martina Moyski  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  May 29, 2020   

Recent reports show downward trend

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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - A new report finds that a striking drop in U.S. religiosity is underway, corroborating other studies that bode ill for the future of the Church in America.

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Lyman Stone

Titled "Promise and Peril: The History of American Religiosity and Its Recent Decline," the highly nuanced 60-page report was authored by Lyman Stone, an adjunct fellow at American Enterprise Institute and a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. It presents a wide range of new data on the history of religion and religiosity in the United States.

"By any measure, religiosity in America is declining," Stone concludes.

Citing almost 100 sources, the survey reveals that throughout most of U.S. history, "if you asked, the vast majority of Americans would most likely say they at least believed in God and quite likely would identify themselves as Christians."

"More than two-thirds of baby boys received religious names, and before 1800, virtually all babies born in America had church baptisms, dedications or christenings," says Stone. "Furthermore, early America was dominated by formal, official religion. Most of the 13 colonies had established religions, and legal favoritism for some religious groups continued in various forms and places until at least the 1950s."

But over the past half-century, Stone notes, the country has experienced a dramatic U-turn. 

"More Americans have no religious identity at all," he writes. "A quarter do not identify with any religion, less than a third are given names connected to any religion and America's legal environment is increasingly secular, explicitly limiting support for religion." 

Kids raised without religion tend to become nonreligious adults and vice versa.

Stone submits that the secularization of society — especially in the educational arena — is a primary cause. He refers to Raphaël Franck and Iannaccone's seminal 2014 work "Religious decline in the 20th century west: testing alternative explanations," which found that religiosity is determined early in life — that "kids raised without religion tend to become nonreligious adults and vice versa." In fact, over adulthood, most cohorts studied tended to become "slightly more religious over time." 

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As governments increasingly compete to provide education, not to mention other services historically provided by religious communities, social attachment to religion could decline, he surmises. And since roughly 90% of American children attend public school, the decline is not surprising.

But there is a second, related possible driver of declining religiosity — changing family arrangements with interfaith marriages and marrying a non-religious spouse. "Children of interfaith marriage are considerably less likely to affiliate with either, or any, religion, and thus a rise in such marriages could reduce religiosity in the next generation," Stone said.

Conversely, marriage itself — "being married at all" — increases average religiosity, he found.

Additionally, longitudinal data from the United States and United Kingdom have shown that having children can make people, especially women, more socially conservative, an effect that may extend to religiosity. This notion is supported by data from another survey showing that getting married and having children boosts religiosity. Stone surmises that "the evidence that married life may be uniquely conducive to religiosity is quite strong."

Fewer Catholics are marrying — a typical occasion for religious conversion.
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A decline in Catholic marriages has
contributed to fewer conversions to the Faith

The overall finding of Stone's analysis — though different in methods and particulars — is corroborated by the declining trends manifested in other studies.

A 2019 Pew Research study found that irreligious adults (called "nones") now outnumber adult Catholics in the United States — a first in the nation's history. The poll indicated that 26% of America's adult population identify as "nones," overshadowing the 20% of U.S. adults claiming to be Catholic.

The survey also found the percentage of U.S. adults professing to be "nones" surged from 17% in 2009 to 26% in 2019. In the same period, the adult Catholic population fell from 23% to its current level of 20%.

Another recent study, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), found that fewer than 94 thousand adults were received into the Catholic Church in 2018. Of these, roughly six in 10 were baptized and four in 10 were received by an initiation ceremony. Since CARA started keeping track in 1964, the only other year the number of adult converts dipped below 100 thousand was 2017 with 93 thousand adult converts.

Like Stone's report, the CARA report listed marriage as a primary cause for the ongoing decline, specifically that fewer Catholics are marrying — a typical occasion for religious conversion.

Stone is just one of the recent messengers bearing the news that religiosity overall is on the decline in the United States. Others report more particularly on the dwindling numbers of Catholics and those converting to Catholicism (down 46% since 2000).

Fewer conversions means fewer Catholics, which in turn translates to fewer vocations — a downward spiral that, for the Faith, speaks more to peril than promise.

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