Is Religion Withering in America?

Decline in religious affiliation may not mean decline in religiosity

Posted Feb 13, 2013

Decreasing Religiosity in America?

Is religion on the decline in America?  Whether it is due to the success of Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins’ polemics against religion or, as Bill Keller speculates in “The Conscience of a Corporation,” aversion to the hyperbolic claims of Rick Warren and other evangelicals about the putative suppression of religious liberty, it appears that disaffection with religion is growing in America. 

A recent poll from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicates that one fifth of American adults and approximately one third of young adults under thirty claim no religious affiliation.  “”Nones” on the Rise” notes that these are the highest percentages of religiously unaffiliated Americans in the history of the Pew Forum’s polling.  As recently as the early 1990s, less than ten percent of adults were religiously unaffiliated.  These new numbers also suggest that, with regard to Americans’ religious sensibilities, the religiously disaffected are the fastest growing group, increasing by roughly thirty percent over the past five years.

Such findings will, no doubt, elicit a range of reactions.  The New Atheists and their allies will, presumably, take heart at the apparent erosion of religion’s grip on American culture and public life.  Many religious Americans, on the other hand, worry not only about alleged infringements of religious freedom but about the very future of the nation.


The Bestsellers of 2012

I suspect that, like Mark Twain’s famous complaint that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, the decline of religiosity in America may be more apparent than real.  Look no further than the statistics about book sales in 2012 in one of the prominent publications of the bookish left, the Sunday “Book Review” of the New York Times.

Among the Times’ ten bestselling nonfiction books of 2012 are, not one, but two books about individuals’ excursions to heaven while under medical care.  It is worth noting that, subsequently, in the second month of 2013, these two books have moved up to number one and number six in the less expensive paperback format.  The books recount the journeys to heaven of, respectively, a neurosurgeon and a three-year-old, where each meets and interacts with various individuals with extraordinary knowledge and powers, including Jesus in the case of the three-year-old.  I shall leave aside questions like why the testimonies of three-year-olds who are ill and under sedation or of adults in a coma (neurosurgeons or not) should carry particular authority or why the claims of people who have not died should constitute revelations about the afterlife.  The point is that in an America that is allegedly witnessing a waning of religiosity, such works are huge sellers among the reading public.


A Closer Look

What the Pew Forum study exhibits is a drop in poll participants’ willingness to acknowledge affiliation with various institutional religions.  The Pew Forum poll, however, provides plenty of evidence for the fact that that is not the same thing as a decline in religiosity. 

Consider, for example, the fact that more than two thirds of the unaffiliated respondents affirm belief in God and more than a fifth of them pray every day.  Another Pew Forum study shows that these unaffiliated respondents pray more often than one fifth of evangelicals and forty percent of Catholics!  In fact, the statistics on the importance of prayer in Americans’ daily lives has not budged over the last twenty-five years. 

Many unaffiliated respondents subscribe to other beliefs and practices that involve counter-intuitive presumptions not unlike those of some religions.   It is just that the religions in question are not those with which most Americans are familiar.  Thirty percent “have felt in touch with someone who is dead.”  One fourth endorses reincarnation and astrology;  fifteen percent have conferred with psychics.  In these regards, though, this unaffiliated group is quite like the American public overall.

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