Whither God: Is Religion Fading In America?

Is religion on the decline? That’s what several recent polls seem to indicate. Today, a record 1 in 5 Americans say they do not belong to any religion; among those under 30, it’s more like 1 in 3. But Rodney Stark, co-director of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, disagrees.

In an op-ed in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, titled “The Myth of Unreligious America,” Stark attempts to put a brave face on the decline of religion in the United States. This is understandable, given that he has just published a book on “The Triumph of Christianity,” but his arguments are ultimately unconvincing. He claims that America is not really becoming more secular, as most Americans with no religion still believe in God or the supernatural.

But when we look at behavior, instead of stated beliefs, we see that America is even less religious than the polls suggest. Sociologists have long known that people over-report religious participation because of stigma associated with apathy and nonbelief. While Gallup reports about 40% of Americans claim weekly church attendance, a 2005 study in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that barely 20% are actually in the pews on Sunday. A 2001 study by Barna found that 1 in 6 adults say they tithe (donate at least 10% of their income to the church), but the true figure is closer to 1 in 20.

Stark dismisses the surveys showing religion’s declining market share on the grounds that their samples are biased towards the less wealthy and less educated. What he fails to mention, however, is that wealth and education are negatively correlated with religiosity. For instance, a 2011 study by Notre Dame economist Daniel Hungerman found that each additional year of schooling corresponds with a 4 percent reduction in religious affiliation later in life. If anything, polls may be overstating religion’s hold on America.

The rising tide of "who cares?"

While religious apologists can still claim that belief in a deity (loosely defined) hasn’t fallen much, what they can’t deny is this belief’s waning influence on behavior and the public discourse. Americans’ increasing refusal to associate with organized religion reveals growing distrust of church dogma and authority. When cast in the light of fading support for socially conservative policies like bans on gay marriage and marijuana, it becomes clear that declining religious affiliation reflects a real shift in cultural attitudes. What we are witnessing is ascendent skepticism about religion, even if explicit “atheism” is still considered taboo.