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U.S. religion is increasingly polarized

Moderate forms of organized worship are losing ground while evangelicalism maintains a steady foothold

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11:51am, December 14, 2017
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PRAY TELL  Religion in the United States displays a resilience and intensity not seen in other Western, historically Christian nations, researchers say. A new analysis suggests that the popularity of fervent forms of religion has held steady since 1989 while moderate types of worship have lost followers.

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Unlike other historically Christian Western nations, the United States is not losing its religion, say sociologists Landon Schnabel of Indiana University Bloomington and Sean Bock of Harvard University. But America is becoming as polarized religiously as it is politically, the researchers report online November 27 in Sociological Science.

Intense forms of religion, such as Christian evangelicalism, have maintained their popularity for nearly 30 years, Schnabel and Bock find after analyzing almost 30 years of U.S. survey data. At the same time, moderate forms of religion, such as mainline Protestantism, have consistently lost followers.

Religious moderates’ exodus from their churches stems partly from a growing link between religion and conservative politics, exemplified by the rise of the religious right in the late 1980s, the researchers suspect. Political liberals and moderates who already felt lukewarm toward the religion of their parents increasingly report identifying with no organized religion, especially if leaders of their childhood churches have taken conservative stances on social issues. Many Americans still report that they believe in God and pray, so they haven’t turned to atheism, the scientists say.

Population trends also favor intense forms of religion, Schnabel holds. Mainline Protestantism’s decline from 35 percent of the U.S. population in 1972 — about 73.5 million people — to 12 percent in 2016 — nearly 39 million people — reflects low fertility rates among these Protestants and limited numbers of new adherents from immigration and conversion. Opposite trends among U.S. evangelicals helped their form of intense Christianity surge from 18 percent of the population in 1972 to a steady level of about 28 percent from 1989 to 2016.

“More moderate forms of organized religion could become increasingly irrelevant in the United States,” Schnabel says.

The new findings play into an academic debate about the fate of religion in modern societies. Some scholars argue that in wealthy nations marked by scientific advances, religion inevitably withers. National surveys in 13 other Western, historically Christian nations show a general weakening of religious beliefs, even among intense believers, since 1991, the researchers find. But Schnabel and Bock are among those who view the United States as an exception where intense religion holds steady and even many of those leaving churches keep their faith.

The researchers examined data from nationally representative surveys on religion and other topics conducted from 1989 to 2016 by the General Social Survey, or GSS, a project of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. GSS surveys include approximately 1,500 people annually.

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Belief trends

U.S. survey data show that the percentage of adults reporting a strong affiliation with a religion (middle line) held steady from 1989 to 2016. The percentage of those citing “not strong” or “somewhat strong” religious ties (top line) fell slightly, while the proportion of people with no formal religious affiliation roughly doubled (bottom line).

religious affiliation graph

The proportion of the U.S. population citing strong ties to any religion held steady at around 36 percent during the study period. But the share of adults identifying themselves as religiously unaffiliated rose from around 9 percent to around 20 percent of the population, the researchers report. In another sign of loosening religious ties, those who never attended religious services rose from around 14 percent to around 25 percent of the population. Occasional attendance dropped from about 80 percent to about 70 percent. 

Still, those who rarely or never prayed remained at about 24 percent of the population from 1989 to 2016. People who prayed several times a day rose from around 24 percent to about 30 percent of the total.

A belief in the Bible as God’s literal word held steady at roughly one-third of Americans. A view of the Bible as inspired by a higher power but not literal fell slightly to just under half of the population. Those tagging the Bible as a book of fables rose from around 15 percent to around 22 percent.

The new findings underscore the growing polarization of U.S. religion, say Michael Hout of New York University and Claude Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley. In a 2014 report based on GSS data, the two sociologists found that most political liberals and some political moderates who weakly identified with their parents’ religion have increasingly said that they prefer no particular religion. That trend was most pronounced for those reporting that the church they grew up with had become an advocate of politically conservative positions. Many of those people expressed a qualified belief in God, endorsing neither atheism nor absolute certainty in a higher power’s existence. Political conservatives, including those who seldom attended services or had doubts about church doctrine, had no complaints about religious leaders’ conservative political pronouncements.

Members of the millennial generation born since 1990 report low levels of religious involvement regardless of their politics, Hout adds. Millennials are skeptical of institutions in general although most still believe in God, he says. “Millennials are more comfortable with do-it-yourself religion than none at all.”

Sociologists David Voas of University College London and Mark Chaves of Duke University disagree. Millennials are part of a larger U.S. trend in which each successive generation over nearly the last century has reported slightly less intensity of religious belief than the one before, Voas and Chaves reported in a 2016 analysis of GSS data. For instance, in 2014, only 45 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 30 had no doubts that God exists versus 68 percent of those age 65 or over.

“The proportion of intensely religious Americans is being eroded, albeit very slowly,” Voas contends.

Citations

L. Schnabel and S. Bock. The persistent and exceptional intensity of American religion: A response to recent research. Sociological Science. Published online November 27, 2017. doi: 10.15195/v4.a28.

M. Hout and C. Fischer. Explaining why more Americans have no religious preference: Political backlash and generational succession, 1987-2012. Sociological Science. Published online October 13, 2014. doi: 10.15195/v1.a24.

D. Voas and M. Chaves. Is the United States a counterexample to the secularization thesis? American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 121, March 2016, p. 1517. doi: 10.1086/684202. 

Further Reading

B. Bower. Visions for all. Science News. Vol. 181, April 7, 2012, p. 22.

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