Opinion | Lots of Americans Are Losing Their Religion. Have You?

In their forthcoming book, “Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society,” the sociologists Isabella Kasselstrand, Phil Zuckerman and Ryan Cragun describe a change in the built environment of St. Louis that is “emblematic” of the ebb of organized religious observance in America. What was once a Gothic-style beauty of a Catholic church built in the 19th century by German immigrants had been turned into a skateboard park.

“In the United States,” the authors tell us, “somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 churches close down every year, either to be repurposed as apartments, laundries, laser-tag arenas, or skate parks, or to simply be demolished.” (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that my apartment was once the rectory of a church, also built in the 1800s and transformed, a couple of decades ago, into condos for yuppies who want dramatic windows and a hint of ecclesiastical flavor.)

It’s not just the frequency of churchgoing or temple membership that’s declining in our country: Last month, The Wall Street Journal and NORC at the University of Chicago surveyed around 1,000 American adults about the importance of different values to Americans, including the importance of religion. In 2023, only 39 percent of respondents said religion was very important to them, compared to 62 percent who said that in 1998.

When you look at the full results, the picture becomes a bit more complicated. Sixty percent of respondents said that religion was either somewhat or very important to them, and only 19 percent said religion was not important to them at all. The United States is still a more religiously observant country than our peer nations in Western Europe — according to Pew Research in 2018, for example, we are more likely to believe in God or some kind of higher power and more likely to pray daily.

But two things can be true at the same time, said Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology at Duke Divinity School who directs the National Congregations Study: America can still be a comparatively observant nation and religious observance can be on the decline in various dimensions, happening at different paces, Chaves explains. “The decline in religious belief and interest is much slower than the decline in organizational participation,” he said when we spoke.

For example, few Americans say they don’t believe in God at all, and while that minority has grown, it’s still very small. According to NORC data, atheists only made up about 2 percent to 3 percent of the population from 1988 to 2012. By 2021, atheists were 7 percent of the population. In 1988, 17 percent of Americans said they never attended religious services. In 2021, that number was 31 percent.

Religion’s meaning to people goes well beyond regular attendance at a local church, temple or mosque, or trust in religious leaders. That’s why polling questions don’t always capture the whole picture of American religious observance. There’s been a lot of coverage about the rise of what pollsters sometimes call “nones” — people who say they have no religion in particular, which, according to Gallup, went from 0 percent to 2 percent of the population in the early 1950s to plateauing at around 20 percent of the population from 2017 to 2022.

But it would be incorrect to say that nones don’t retain any trappings of religious observance, like belief in a higher power or performing certain rituals. It doesn’t even mean they never attend church. As Zuckerman, one of the co-authors of “Beyond Doubt” and a professor at Pitzer College, explained to me over the phone, when social scientists talk about religion, they do it in terms of “the three Bs: belief, behavior and belonging.” If someone asks you about your religion and you say you don’t have any, Zuckerman said, “That tells me nothing about your beliefs, and that tells me nothing about your behavior. It just tells me how you identify.”

Since I started reporting this story, I’ve been asking members of my unobservant family what they’d say if a pollster asked them what their religious affiliations are. (Aware of the caveat that both sociologists I talked to noted: Responses are often shaped by how the question is asked.)

None of us have set foot in a temple or church in years. My mother and I both said we would identify as Jewish. My father — who has two Jewish parents and was bar mitzvahed — said he’d identify as “nothing” and instead likes to joke about erecting a statue of Athena in his yard. My husband, who was baptized Episcopalian but didn’t always go to church regularly growing up, said he would identify as Christian. My 10-year-old said she didn’t know what she would say. These responses, especially my dad’s and my husband’s, were surprising to me.

Because this topic is so much more complicated than “Americans used to be religious and now we’re not,” I’m making this the first newsletter in a series where I’ll explore the contours of our current relationship with religion, and try to unpack how we got here and what’s changed over the past several decades.

My goal: to inject some nuance and specificity into this discussion, since I feel like it can be and sometimes is dominated by partisans who want to argue that the decline in religiosity is either uniformly good or bad for society. My own feeling is one of profound ambivalence. I have no interest in going back to temple and little trust or appetite for organized religion. But I feel passionately about being Jewish, and a little heartsick about not knowing quite how to pass along my ritual and history to my children. I do wonder about what may be lost by not having a community connected by belief, but I’m not quite sure what that is, or if replacing it is possible, or even desirable.

I’d like to hear from you. If you were once observant or religious and are less so now, and would like to share your experience, please answer the questions in the form below. I may reach out to you for future installments of this newsletter.

Are you someone who has moved away from religion?

Please answer the following questions. We won’t publish your personal details before contacting you for permission.

Tiny Victories

Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.

“How big is this T. rex you are worried will get you while you sleep?” I asked my 3-year-old.

“As big as the house,” he cried.

“Well, that’s good,” I replied, “he won’t be able to fit through your door, then.”

The kid nodded, and went to sleep.

— Jill Quandt, Omaha

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