Are Americans less religious than they used to be? It’s clear that fewer Americans affiliate with a specific religion than in previous decades. But many (here and here) have argued that other types of religious practices, such as belief in God, attending religious services, and prayer, are just as prevalent as they used to be in the U.S., or at least have changed only a little (here and here). 

In a new paper released today, we find that is no longer the case: the number of Americans who pray, believe in God, and see the Bible as divinely inspired reached all-time lows in 2014. The religious practices people perform behind closed doors – or even just inside our heads – are now on the decline as well. Even in their private moments, fewer Americans are religious. As I explore in Generation Me, this is the logical consequence of a society placing more emphasis on the individual self and less on social rules: Religion, by definition, is about something larger than yourself.

To trace trends in religious participation and beliefs, we drew from one of the best-known surveys in social science, the General Social Survey, which has sampled over 50,000 American adults since 1972. We found the large declines in public religious affiliation found in other research, with a tripling of those who don’t affiliate with any religion (from 6% in the early 1970s to 21% in 2014) and a doubling of those who never attend religious services (from 11% in the early 1970s to 26% in 2014).

The more surprising, and very recent, developments were the trends in private religious beliefs and actions. Nearly twice as many Americans do not believe in God (22% in 2014, up from 13% in the late 1980s). Just since 2004, 50% more Americans say they never pray (15% in 2014, up from 10%). The change is even larger among young adults – nearly twice as many 18- to 29-year-olds in 2014 said they never prayed in 2014 (24%) compared to 2004 (13%).

Overall, the changes among young adults were the most stark. Nearly a third of Millennials (born 1980-1994) in 2014 were secular not just in foregoing religious affiliation, but in never attending services, saying they are not a religious person, and not believing in God. A fourth say they never pray. The change also appeared in the youngest generation in the survey: those born after the early 1990s, whom I call iGen. Because this data reaches back so many decades, we know that the Millennials and iGen are not forsaking religion because they are young – they are markedly less religious than GenX’ers and Boomers were when they were young.

Nor has religion been replaced by spirituality. Those describing themselves as spiritual stayed the same among all adults and actually declined among young adults.

Americans did hold on to one religious belief: They are just as likely, even a little more likely than those in previous decades, to believe in an afterlife. Given the declines in religious practice, it seems we’re expecting to get something for nothing. That’s known as entitlement.

Why has this happened? That’s where the discussion gets interesting. I believe increasing individualism in the culture has a lot to do with it. Others have pointed to technology, such as the ready availability of information on the Internet.

What do you think has caused the decline in religious belief and practice? And is this a good thing or a bad thing?

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