In a recent webinar hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Research Fellow for the Institute of Family Studies Lyman Stone discussed his report, Promise and peril: The history of American religiosity and its recent decline with New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat, and AEI Research Fellow Daniel Cox. It’s natural to assume that religion’s prominence in America is as steady as the tide. For example, although American religiosity fell between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it also rose from the 19th to the mid 20th centuries, and then dropped off once again since the late 20th century. These fluctuations seem cyclical, since “Americans today are still more religious today than at some points in the past.” However, Stone notes that “from 1630 to 2014, there has been a broad plateauing to decline” of religion. Moreover,
“The perception of an increasingly secular society is not wrong. Even in past periods when religious attendance and membership were low, other forms of religious attachment were still robust: More than 85 or 90 percent of Americans most likely perceived themselves as religious in some form or fashion in all periods before 1960. They were hard-drinking, sometimes murderous, rapscallions, gamblers, and slavers, who did not go to church and were not part of any religious body.”
It’s striking that a quarter of Americans today do not identify as religious, while less than a third have religiously associated names. These trends are contemporaneous to an America where the “legal environment is increasingly secular, explicitly limiting support for religion.” This is different than a pre-1960s America, where belief in God would have been far more prevalent, with most professing their religious background as Christianity. In addition, “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.” These are important, observable markers of religious change in American life. However, the appearance of religiosity should not be confused with real religiosity. What exactly is going on?
Although peak religiosity rises at age 12, it also sharply declines between the ages of 18 to 22. Adolescence and early adulthood are formational years. In a void, this seems to confirm fears that have long promulgated within Christian culture, that college education and secularization are somehow intertwined. However, it’s important to note that these particular concerns are not readily evident in the research. Moreover, “continuing adult secularization” is an untenable explanation. As Stone’s research demonstrates, the religious practices, and habits that one was brought up with will likely return, even if one were to leave them between the ages of 18 to 22. What Stone argues is that the decline in religiosity is “not about the deeply considered rational choices of people who’ve decided to leave the church… It’s happening to minors while they are at home [emphasis mine].”
This decline cannot be explained away by an atheist philosophy professor, or an increasingly secular culture. While it may be reassuring to watch a film like God’s Not Dead, such films misdirect the attention of Christian families from their responsibility to live out their faith in a more consistent manner. Kids rightly assess the relationship between a person’s word and deed and look for “authenticity.” There remains little evidence to show net departure from religion after the age of 22, even after accounting for differences across generational cohorts.
Comparing generational cohorts does yield some interesting data, one observation being that “older cohorts were more religious relative to other cohorts in their adolescent years.” As Stone argues, “change in religiosity primarily occurs across, not within, cohorts… It’s not about adults making rational choices for themselves. It’s not about appealing to young people or social values. It’s about family!” But is the issue really that simple? Historically, the Church has always taken seriously the role of the family in faith formation. What has precipitated this demographic realignment?
According to Stone’s analysis of the data, the frequency of non-church related, religious activities in a given household is an excellent predictor for sustained religious commitment. In other words, “households that have more religious activities, are more likely to maintain religiosity.” Controlling for how religious the parent is, the actual frequency of religious activity at home is a reliable predictor for whether or not a child grows up and remains religious. There seems to be very little or negligent attrition for kids who grow up in religious households with daily religious activity. Frequent within-household (non-church) religious activities, and secondary school, are major predictors for self-described religious commitment in adulthood.
Another important factor is that religious communities are shrinking. This phenomenon cannot be accounted to conversions, since the share of non-religious people is growing largely due to a non-religious upbringing. Thus, the real question is about babies. Naturally, a share of people born into any given tradition will eventually leave it. But, if “the number of people born into a tradition is smaller, the aggregate growth with also be smaller.” Looking at the numbers, the proportion of non-religious will grow with 1.6 children on average. The Catholic and Orthodox communities need to have 3 children on average just to avoid decline, excluding immigration as a vector for growth. The primary reason Catholics in America haven’t experienced precipitous decline is because of immigration. Evangelical Protestants need to have about 2 children to grow the proportion of their community, while Mainline Protestants need to have roughly 2.5 children.
For the non-trinitarian sects, such as Latter-Day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, they need to have 2.1/2.2 children. If religious communities want to maintain their cultural reach, and institutions, they will need to have more children. The formula that Stone offers is this: historically normal conversion patterns and lower overall fertility equals a declining absolute and relative religious population size.
According to the research, religious groups have always been more fertility dependent for growth than minor fringe sects, and the non-religious. These days, it has become harder to find a spouse who shares your religious tradition, and harder to financially support denominational schools. This all leads to a household environment where the transmission of a religious tradition becomes more difficult relative to external influences. An excellent question posed by the panelists was whether or not a religious specific public policy can justifiably be enacted in a religiously plural society. The panelists discussed child allowances, ending marriage penalties (this is especially relevant for working households), reinforcing school choice (allowing for diverse parental choice), and easier zoning (since housing is a major up-front cost for raising a child, and many churches are unable to operate an established church in a given area).
As Douthat notes, the narrative of “insufficient fertility” is too easy of an explanation. He argues that more religions will enter into an overall decline, which may be correlated to an increasing trend towards theological orthodoxy, and traditionalism. So called “Soft Protestantism” has left most of our public institutions today. The bulwark of mainline Protestantism is no longer a holding force, and it is in this vacuum that debates over school prayer are occurring. Douthat’s sympathy towards a kind of elite revolution is intriguing but lacks the same credibility that Stone leverages with his data. Stone pushes back on Douthat’s proposal by asking whether or not the re-introduction of school prayer will make people more religious. By pointing to the moment in American history when school prayer was removed, one notices that its removal during a time of popularity may have led to the acceleration of secularization. This is not conclusive. Moreover, although Douthat raises some vital questions about American families, it is not clear that traditional religiosity in a smaller segment of the population will actually occur.
On this point, Dan Cox offered some questions about the supposedly cyclical rise and fall of religiosity in America. His research has illumined the rise of the so-called religious “nones.” This is a category of people that do not self-report any religious involvement, participation, or commitment. It is important to note that religiosity is not the same as self-reported levels of spirituality. A new American approach to religion seems to be taking root, as Ross Douthat, Tara Isabella Burton, and Steven Smith discussed back in early January. To Dan Cox’s point, the modern socio-cultural context diverges sharply from how it was in the past. With 40% of young people under the age of 30 claiming no affiliation with religion, an increasing proportion of young people claim to be atheist rather than evangelical Christian. Does the religious affiliation of our friends and spouse matter? The panelists discuss the importance of geographic, and cultural sensitivity when it comes to any policy proposal, and its implementation. Some policies may have widespread support in a community where the view is mainstream. In another part of the country, such a view could be held as anathema.
A few outstanding quandaries remain. Per Lyman Stone’s comments, is marginalization or persecution a net positive, or a net negative for religious affiliation in America? Examples abroad may provide insight, but they are not necessarily guaranteeing of the same outcome. Ross Douthat is concerned by the evangelical support for Trump, and whether or not this may have an impact on trends in religiosity going forward. That said, Douthat notes that opposition to Trump is especially potent in elite circles, and it remains unclear whether or not rates in religiosity will be affected by those most adamantly opposed to a Trump presidency. Lastly, Dan Cox helpfully points to moderate and liberal Christians as being the primary group drifting away from a commitment to church, and religious life in general. Back in 2017, he pointed out that the rise of the “Religious Left” was not likely. As the data now shows, young liberals are split 50/50 between those affiliated with religion, and those that are unaffiliated. This certainly does not bode well for those that are both religious, and to the left in their politics. Still, one thing is for certain, American religiosity may be down, but it is certainly far from out.
Derek Uejo is a Fall 2019 John Jay Fellow and graduate of Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute. He is currently interning with the American Enterprise Institute, and will be pursuing his MTS in New Testament at Duke Divinity School this fall.