Americans Are Less Religious Than Ever

Yet slightly more of us believe in an afterlife.
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Yet slightly more of us believe in an afterlife.
(Photo: Michael Dorausch/Flickr)

(Photo: Michael Dorausch/Flickr)

Americans are a famously religious bunch. Despite our income and cowboy-like individualism, 54 percent say religion is a very important part of our lives, according to Pew Research Center data, which is around twice the rate of other similarly wealthy countries. But a new study suggests that American religiosity is in decline, and we could one day end up looking a lot less like a 1920s tent revival and a lot more like secular Europe.

"We found a very pervasive decline in religious practice among American adults," says Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and lead author of the new study. That's not entirely a surprise: Following a peak in the mid-1950s, church attendance has been in decline for decades, more or less, while the number of people who say they have no religious preference has been increasing. Yet researchers had suspected that, even if we weren't outwardly religious, we were probably still praying or at least experiencing some kind of spirituality.

Belief in an afterlife is on the upswing.

The data—40 years of it collected as part of the General Social Survey—say otherwise. In addition to declines in church attendance and religious affiliation, there's been "a substantial decline in [religious] practice behind close doors," Twenge says. While Americans haven't gone secular en masse, the numbers are increasing: In 2014, about 15 percent of GSS participants said they never prayed, compared with about 10 percent in 2006, and 22 percent of Americans now don't believe in God, compared with about 13 percent in the late 1980s.

Breaking the data down reveals some caveats and surprises. Black Americans and southerners, for example, have remained largely the same over time in terms of their religious beliefs. What's more, the shift is not merely the result of differences between generations. Twenge, who wrote the book Generation Me about Millennial psychology, says that while Millennials are less religious than their elders were when they were young, Baby-Boomers and Gen Xers are also becoming less religious over time. And, in a particularly odd twist, belief in an afterlife is on the upswing—it reached a peak of 83 percent in 2006, and sits at 79 percent today, a bit higher than the 76 percent figure from 1974.*

So why the decline in religious practice, both public and private? Twenge isn't entirely sure, but she suggests it may be tied to the observation that our culture "is more focused on the self" than it has been in some time. "I don't think that's the only cause, but it's a main one," Twenge says.

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*Update — March 24, 2016: This article has been updated to indicate that Millennials are less religious than older generations were when they were younger, not just as religious, as was originally reported.

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