New Religion Statistics & Anti-Institutionalism

New Religion Statistics & Anti-Institutionalism June 2, 2023

The General Social Survey–considered “the gold standard” of opinion polls covering a wide range of topics–has been released by the researchers at NORC of the University of Chicago, giving the findings for 2022.

Daniel De Visé, with the help of Ryan Burge and others, has pulled out and discussed the data for religion, writing about it in an article for The Hill entitled Does God exist? Only half of Americans say a definite yes.  The emphasis of that headline does not seem that significant, though as recently as 2008, 60% of Americans said they have “no doubt” that God exists. Now it’s just under 50%, but that’s still a lot, and faith can struggle with doubt.

The rest of the findings are more or less what other studies have been saying, though with updated statistics:  Church affiliation is in decline.  In 2022, 34% of Americans say they “never go to church.”  De Visé cites another recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which found that 27% say they have “no religion.”

And yet among those who say they have “no religion,” about half still believe in a God.  Only 7% of Americans are atheists, with another 7% being agnostics.  And 46% of the “nones” believe in life after death, something 73% of Americans as a whole believe in.

I wonder if the average person conflates not belonging to a church with not having a religion.  I have heard people talk that way, as in “my religion is Methodist,” so that not having a membership in that denomination any more means their religion is “none,” even though they still have personal religious, maybe even Christian, beliefs.

That would go along with what one scholar quoted in the article says about the “nones”:

“It used to be that the religiously uninvolved people, when you asked them what religion they are, they would still say, ‘Yeah, I’m Catholic, I’m Presbyterian,’ whatever,” [Duke sociologist Mark] Chaves said. Today, the same Americans are “taking the next step of saying, ‘I’m nothing.’”

Certainly all of the denominations are in decline, except for one group:  Not the “nones” but the “nons.”  “Nondenominational” Christians now constitute 15% of the population, making them the second-largest religious category in the nation, after the Catholics.

The article quotes Ryan Burge, the Christian sociologist we often draw on at this blog, reflecting on the findings: “We don’t like institutions, whether it be banks or unions or big business.”

Exactly!  The Nones are bailing out of “institutional” religions, and even Christians are bailing out of “institutional” church bodies.

Americans are profoundly disillusioned with virtually all of their institutions.  And, really, who can blame them?

Some of the church bodies with the strictest teachings about sexual morality, including those that insist that good works are the basis for salvation, have had sex scandals that shock even permissive secularists.  “Don’t they believe their own teachings?” is a natural question.

Name an institution.  The government?  We may be politically polarized, but just about everybody is angry at, fearful of, and disgusted with the government.  Marriage?  The divorce rate has discouraged many Americans from even trying it.  Businesses?  Both the left and the right are fed up with the big corporations, and employees are embracing the idea of doing as little as possible.  Schools?  They seem to have substituted political indoctrination and encouraging gender confusion instead of teaching even basic skills and knowledge, and parents from across the spectrum don’t feel they can trust  the schools with their children.

Our current level of aversion to institutions may be an outlier.  Societies consist of institutions and cannot function for long without them.  Maybe at least some of our institutions can be revived.

If a major reason for the decline of the church is anti-institutionalism, might a reformation of our institutions help, in the long run, to reverse that decline?

What if we had a government that we trusted and respected?  Not an energetic political machine that tries to solve all of our problems.  That’s the kind of government that at least part of the population will fear.  I’m thinking of something more like the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, who–despite the country’s political divisions–everyone at least respected (the man won World War II after all!), and who mostly ran things with a quite competence, implementing not flashy programs but less dramatic projects that did a lot of good, such as the Interstate Highway system.

What if we had businesses that treated their customers and their employees well?  Schools that nourished their students and truly prepared them for life as adults?  Schools and workplaces used to inspire affection and loyalty.  What if we could bring that back?

All of this, of course, is easier said than done.  I’m not aware of any politician or public figure who could marshal the respect of Gen. Eisenhower.  And I’m not sure how to make these other institutions worthy of our esteem and trust.  But some improvement may happen naturally, or as a reaction to the institutional failures.

There is reason to think that the people who are still bothering to get married and are still having children may be doing a better job of it, more so than those who followed those courses because that was what every one did but whose heart wasn’t in it, to the detriment of those institutions.

And I have seen some wonderful schools and homeschools in my involvement with classical education, as parents seek for and sometimes build an alternative to the failing educational establishment.

I have also known and experienced some wonderful congregations living faithfully as Christian communities in a God-ordained institution and denominations that are functioning as they should, giving pastoral care and theological oversight (something some of the “nons” desperately need) to their congregations.

Two other takeaways from the study and the article about them:

Decades ago, nearly every American child was raised in some religion. Today, nearly 15 percent of the population reports no religious upbringing.

“They’re not saying night prayers, morning prayers, taking their kids to church,” said Thomas Groome, a professor in theology and religious education at Boston College. “Whatever religion we have going forward will be by persuasion and choice and not by inherited identity.”

People will become affiliated with a church and religion by persuasion and choice, not by inherited identity!  People will become Lutheran, say, because they are convinced by Lutheran theology and appreciate Lutheran practices.  Not because they were “born Lutheran.”  That’s the course I took, and we need to realize that this will become the norm.  This actually bodes well for upholding Lutheran (or any other theological tradition’s) principles, since they will have to put them forward in the religious marketplace and their congregations will increasingly consist of people who found them compelling.

Also, there is this:

“Assuming that church attendance is the measure of faith, that notion is becoming obsolete,” Groome said. “We’ve always used church attendance as the hallmark of the faith in our people, and I don’t think they’re synonymous.”

Church attendance is no longer the best way to measure religion.  Indeed, it never has been.  Lots of religions–such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism–don’t require weekly corporate worship, as Christianity does.  And there are radically individualistic Christians who don’t go to church, encouraged by the erroneous evangelical notion that faith is a matter of “me and Jesus,” with little role for a church consisting of other people, despite what the New Testament teaches.

But to study religion, you need to ask more questions about what people believe.  (Do you believe that Jesus is God in the flesh?  Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?  Do you think that you will go to Heaven, and, if so, why?  Do you believe in an objective moral law?  Do you believe the universe is a creation or an illusion?  Do you believe life has meaning? . . . .)  Maybe some year the General Social Survey will ask questions like those.


Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr, CC 2.0

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