This comes on the heels of Gallup releasing new data that concluded that “God is alive and well” in the United States. This research, based on a massive series of surveys in which one out of every thousand Americans was asked about their religion in 2012, has gone largely unnoticed by religion reporters. Not that reporters are required to cover anything but this is a bit odd as Gallup’s sample size is nearly ten times larger than many of the most highly regarded studies on this topic in the U.S. (e.g., Pew or ARIS). The sample is a hundred times larger sample than the one used by Robert Putnam and David Campbell used to write American Grace,which was widely covered by the media. The New York Times covered Pew’s research with “Study Finds One in 6 Follows No Religion” but made no mention of Gallup’s, which also provides some much needed insight on religion in America. Was it just not newsworthy? Here were some of the key Gallup findings:
- Sixty-nine percent of American adults are very or moderately religious.
- Religiousness increases with age, albeit not in a smooth path but rather in stages. Americans are least religious at age 23 and most religious at age 80.
- Trends in the age composition of the American public suggest that religion may become increasingly important in the years to come. This is mostly the result of the fact that the number of Americans who are 65 and older will essentially double over the next 20 years, dramatically increasing the number of older Americans. As long as these aging baby boomers become more religious as they age—following the path of their elders—the average religiousness in the population will go up.
That final point sure seems a bit provocative and worthy of note or further exploration. The news “problem” with the Gallup’s study may be in that it looks at religiosity through the lens of the life-cycle rather than then the “linear” secularization model that is the dominant “conventional wisdom” (…even as this has largely been discarded in the academic world in both theory and evidence. Comte, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and Freud are all dead, yet religion lives on). Both Gallup and Pew reveal similar things about religion in the U.S. There is a large and growing number of Americans who are without any attachment to organized religion—although many are still personally religious or spiritual and believe in God. But there also remains a much larger group that is religiously affiliated.
What about the future? Gallup has placed a bet on growth in religiosity given the demographic changes expected ahead. At the same time The New York Times and most other secular news organizations are fixated on perspectives about the demise of religion in America (…just follow the trail of headlines in the archives). Who will win that bet?
Gallup is correct that life-cycle effects are important (even if they are largely unnoticed) and are being “stretched” by a growing “adultolesence” that has taken the rather typical dip in religiosity many American have always experienced in their teens and 20s into the 30s. One simple piece of evidence can be found in the age structure of Nones. Look in any recent decade and you’ll find that Nones are always disproportionally young—as if they are the “Lost Boys” never aging. Where are all the senior citizen Nones who had no affiliation in their 20s in the late-1960s?
Adultolescence is only part of the puzzle. Religious affiliation is being affected in the same way that all kinds of membership organizations in America have been since the 1950s from PTOs to the Shriners. For Robert Putnam the primary cause for this membership decline was television (…Bowling Alone is one of the most important books I have ever read). People are not as likely to bowl in leagues anymore—even though bowling may be something they still enjoy. Similarly, there are many Americans who do not belong to a church anymore but who believe in God and consider themselves religious. Too many jump to the conclusion that a lack of affiliation means a lack of religiosity. The Gallup study is important in clarifying this common mistake. Just as Putnam highlighted the effects of TV (…still America’s #1 leisure time “activity” and growing by the year) I think we can now add in the hours we spend on iPhones, tablets, video games, Facebook, etc. to the demise of face to face participation in membership organizations (...on average, teenagers spend more than an hour and a half per day just texting... and a day is still only 24 hours!). We focus so much on the simple number of people who are not in churches on Sunday. Why don’t we ever study what they do instead? In CARA’s research we know many Catholics cite family obligations, work, illness, etc. It might be interesting to know how many are playing Assassin’s Creed instead of saying the Nicene Creed at Mass. We just don’t know. The Gallup study is betting that the 20-year-old without a religious affiliation playing video games on Sundays now will be in a church 35 years from now.
As always I’m really only interested in where the data lead. This requires one to try to disentangle period, life-cycle, and generational effects. In the figure below we see the trends in lack of religious affiliation by generation. This was very uncommon among Americans born before 1942. It was never common among the Lost Generation (born 1883 to 1900) and the G.I. Generation (born 1901 to 1924). Yet this begins to tick up among the Silent Generation (born 1942 to 1960) in the 1990s. This of course is a pattern that the Gallup life-cycle model would not predict. With each successive generation from the Boomers (born 1943 to 1960) to the Millennials (born 1982 or later) there is significant growth in non-affiliation as if parents are increasingly unable to pass on their affiliation. This coincides with what Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” model would predict. The generations raised with a television in their living rooms are less likely to be connected to organized religion (…or other secular institutions). Those born in the digital age are even more disconnected from real-world membership institutions. I don’t think the figure below leads one to be very confident that those playing video games on Sundays now will be praying in churches at mid-century when they are in their late 50s.
As shown below, Protestant churches have felt the brunt of these changes. A majority of Baby Boomers self-identify as Protestant or Christian (excluding Orthodox Christians), yet only about four in ten Millennials identify as such. This is a reality that would be unrecognizable to the Lost Generation—the youth of a century prior who were 76% Protestant. This is visible linear change.
However, something quite different is occurring among U.S. Catholics. Here, there is remarkable stability across generations (even growth compared to the oldest generations). Some believe this pattern can be completely explained by immigration. Yet as I’ve noted elsewhere the numbers for that argument just don’t add up as nicely as it is assumed and the reality we see in survey data shows a significant number of Catholics who may lose affiliation for a time returning later in life as the Gallup life-cycle model predicts. Immigration is important (as it has always been for Catholics in the U.S.), but the religious life-cycle may be as well.
So I think Gallup may be partially correct in its predictions. Catholicism seems to “stick” more than Protestant affiliations and this may be important in understanding the future of religious affiliation in the U.S. The Church has a higher retention rate of its youth than individual Protestant denominations and some who left revert back later in life (...the None retention rate is even lower. Not the “Lost Boys” after all...). Immigration is expected to continue to be important as well even as some of this has been on the decline since 2007 (...and the Catholic population percentage has remained steady).
I am less hesitant about making one prediction. I am 100% sure religion and God will still be alive and well in America, as Gallup argues, when The New York Times prints its final edition (1, 2, 3). Some institutions survive cultural changes better than others. Those who don’t see the changes coming probably weren’t paying attention to all of the relevant data.