Decline of Christianity in the USA

Several blogs have commented in the decline in religious affiliation and church attendence found by a recent Pew poll.

This is consistent with declines noted in overall church attendance and membership in major denominations, like the SBC. While some churches grow, the overall trend is down.
No doubt there are multiple causes, but in reflecting on how scripture can lose meaning when the cultural context is not considered. I wonder if that is part of the problem. In the last few decades, there has been a fundamentalist/conservative resurgence in some denominations, associated also with increased political involvement, and a rise in emphasis in biblical literalism and young earth creationism… This correlates timewise with the decline in religiosity overall it seems to me. Now, correlation does not mean causation, but I tend to think it may be related, especially in the younger generation where the change is most evident.

What do you think is driving the process? Do you feel biblical literalism is turning people away from Christianity on a societal level? What other factors are involved?

Phil, I suspect the easy availability of opposing views on the internet makes it harder to control what ideas ones kids will encounter or when that happens. The supercharged polemics of many critics of religion and of those who answer them probably doesn’t help any.

It may interest you to know that nonbelief is just as problematic to propagate as belief. At least it was for us. (My wife was raised entirely apart from religion and never brings it up.). But my stepson nonetheless found his way to the Brazilian sect founded by a fellow known as John of God who does spiritual surgeries and other kinds of faith heeling, drawing in celebrities. Now my stepson is a priest with that group which definitely wouldn’t have been the one I’d have chosen for him if had been up to me. This is part of what has motivated my attempt to understand the intrinsic role of God belief. It certainly does seem to fit a need for many.

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Another article about the Pew poll summarizing the results:https://religionnews.com/2019/10/17/pew-report-older-u-s-christians-being-quickly-replaced-by-young-nones/?fbclid=IwAR3NJXNcnNwZA-RoHcxqlR7ufkvvFGComKaKLWIFI6UNp1cAQzNuJbNg1D4

Since this decline has come about during my lifetime, I think the biggest impacts are 1) the information age, and 2) the emergence of freedom of thought.

The Information Age has made it easy for the everyone to have access to the great atrocities of religious leaders had been able to keep secret in the past. In addition, the advent of biblegateway.com and like allow church goers full access to fact-check the preachers’ and ministers’ interpretation of the Bible.

Freedom of thought is a young concept. My mother was forced to convert to Catholicism to marry my dad. My dad’s brother was forced to go to the seminary. Much of this indoctrination carried over to my generation and continues today in the strong bible communities. But this will continue to diminish as these indoctrinated youth go out into the free world, as we are now seeing. Some will stay loyal, but the decline will continue until Christianity offer a message that is logically compatible to what is taught in the universities.

There are many people who claim that white evangelicalism, with its strong association with white nationalism, political “conservatism,” and shocking moral incompetence, is a major reason for the decline of Christianity in the US, and many of these people would suggest that literalism and anti-science stances can’t explain the very recent acceleration in the decline. I remember reading this piece many months ago and sensing that the authors speak for a lot of worried Christians.

And yet the piece provides no data in support of the claim. The evidence they present is simply that the growing flight from Christian belief (or more notably, from identification with Christian belief) correlates with the pulling back of the curtain on white evangelicalism to reveal its corruption. (At least that’s how it seems to many people; plenty of people have long known that the soul of that sect is rotten.) Maybe they’re right, but all we have right now are opinions and correlations.

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Good questions. I think about things like this on a regular basis as I try to make sense of my own upbringing and the degree to which America and the church have changed since then. These kinds of articles and discussions help me to process things, even though they are primarily speculative – data is useful, but there will always be personal aspects of everyone’s experiences that are different, and getting to see where these things overlap is very interesting.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the fundamentalist resurgence has turned many people off from the church. Ideologies can go from one extreme to another as each movement seems to overcompensate for whatever it’s against. I’ve noticed that in attitudes toward feminism and other things in the past couple generations.

As far as “biblical literalism” goes, I think the same things can bring some people in and drive others away. Some people who grew up in “nominally Christian” homes have faith shifts toward fundamentalism and believe they’re finally taking the Bible seriously. Others who grew up with their faith married to conservative politics, young-earth creationism, climate change denial, anti-feminism, anti-anything-that-isn’t-our-tribe, etc., are probably more likely to shift into mainline denominations or out of the faith, if they experience a faith shift.

There are times when it would have seemed strange for me to analyze it at all – I think many who take a “what will be will be” view toward the climate are likely to take the same view toward faith, that it’s all God’s doing and we don’t know why he’s winnowing down the church but it must be punishment for being part of a godless society. Where’s the fun of analysis if you can’t produce a reason? :smiley: But now I see the benefit of trying to understand using data and experiences, even while acknowledging that knowledge doesn’t give us ultimate power or answers for everything.

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If anyone is interested in a longer term view of the decline, this “Becoming Stillness” talk by Richard Rohr (from around 2008 or so) I think goes deeper (and more broadly) into religious change across the west. But he does specifically contrast U.S. attitudes with European ones - already long having been in decline at that point too. But note what he says about the U.S. - which should seem nothing less than prophetic now since this talk is, I think, prior to the recent accelerations mentioned. I don’t know the exact time-stamp, but just listen at higher speeds if you’re impatient - as the whole thing is interesting to any who want to learn more about contemplative theology (and the west’s rejection of it).

[Rohr is a mystic who has been written off by some probably because he has the nerve to say nice things about other major religions. This video is no exception to that - but for those who aren’t squeemish about free-range truth gathering wherever it is found, I think there are significant insights to be gleaned here about long-term decline that has already been in motion long before Trump, and maybe even before the rise of the religious right - both of which may nonetheless be accelerants as well as symptoms.]

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While I do think that Biblical literalism/YEC/fundamentalism is a factor of it, I also feel the evangelical Christianity with it being politically charged to the Republican Party’s pocket I feel gives a lot of the people of my youth that religion is nothing but political manipulation. Also Christianity is seen as outdated, superstitious and no longer needed for this day and age as we live in a very inclusive universalist world where multiple truths can be had and Christians are seen as bigots for thinking their way is the only right way. Many liberal mainline denominations are also seeing a decline as will along with evangelical churches as well as the many non-denominational mega “light and laser show motivation speaking” churches as I call them are growing in numbers with youth and other’s. I feel that in the future that white evangelical churches will grow smaller and smaller as maybe liberal mainline denominations might see an increase as many of them are trying to appeal to the liberal-progressive youth and mega non denominational churches will become the mainstream of what “church” is. Also the main reason why people aren’t Christian or go to church is from my experience with my younger brother, who claims to believe in God but feels he doesn’t need religion or church to know God and feels religion as a far off secondary thing he won’t need until later in life. This, for those that are still “religious” have this view, religion isn’t that of an important issue to deal with.

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From my discussions with fellow atheists, their reasons for leaving the church or not joining the church run the entire gamut. I haven’t seen any single cause that really sticks out. What I find interesting is that the US is actually behind the curve when we consider Western culture as a whole. Creationism was never really popular in places like the UK, and yet they saw a decline.

The only thing I can find to explain it is that atheism is becoming culturally acceptable. Atheists aren’t kitten eating hedonists looking to steal your children. We are just normal folk who have the same ups and downs as anyone else. As people leave the church they are less likely to have their kids go to church, and the trend starts to build on itself.

As others have mentioned, spirituality and mysticism are still present and people will seek out beliefs and philosophies that speak to them. People seem to be less interested in religions whose historical momentum was built on inherited traditions and cultural conformity. I could be wrong, but it seems that more and more people want to find their own answers instead of accepting the answers passed down to them.

100 years [from now] people could be talking about the massive resurgence of classic Judeo-Christian religions. Who knows?

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Please re-read this quotation and see if you can, with honesty, replace the words “forced to” with “expected to” or “very strongly urged to”.

My dad was the one “strongly urged to” convert before marrying my Mom. He took instructions ‘in the Faith’ but still refused to convert. So they were married in the rectory, and he never converted. They had a happy marriage. He saw to it that each of his kids had at least 8 yrs. of parochial school. He had a bishop and a half dozen priests at his funeral.

Go figure! You can’t judge a person’s ‘sanctity’ by outward appearances.
Al Leo

Sorry Albert, But my mother told the story often. She went to the priest after her indoctrination and told him what from it she did not believe. He said to her, “You believe much more than most of my parishioners.” But the Irish Catholic priest would not marry my parents without her conversion.

In addition, when I got married in Europe in '93, I had to sign a contract with the church regardless of the fact that I hat been in Catholic Church since '74. Don’t underestimate the power the churches long to hold over the people. I know it is not the same in every church and my sample size is probably biased.

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Mervin, thanks for sharing this. I’ve just gotten back from L.A. and am only 11 minutes into it. But I’ve got to get to bed now. It certainly resonates and I want to come back to it. It brings to mind a segment from a talk I’ve shared here before, Ian McGilchrist’s “The Divided Brain”. Not an exact echo, but the distinction McGilchrist pushes there between the intuitive mind and the rational mind seems to map well to Rohr’s distinction between the contemplative mind and the jumping bean mind.

Thank you for posting this talk by Richard Rohr. I found it important, and also very familiar. He raises many points that are true but very unpopular – and growing more unpopular by the day.

You ask what might be driving the process of disintegration within the church, and the answer, as I think many of us are aware, isn’t simple and isn’t just “one thing.” The teachings of Jesus were so complex that it took centuries for Christians to unpack those teachings into various societal structures (e.g. hospitals, schools, democratic governments, capitalism with a conscience, human rights legislation, abolition of slavery, and the like). These efforts to push back against the human brain’s tendency toward greed and selfishness took a lot of time, a lot of consensus, and a lot of teamwork, and the church played important roles in these advances (despite the repeated efforts of many church leaders to shoot themselves – and us – in the foot). Today, however, with so much of the “hard work” already completed (or so we tell ourselves), the “transformational aspect” of church that Fr. Rohr refers to seems unimpressive to our tech-filled eyes, and the “social belonging aspect” of church (which, as Fr. Rohr points out, has long dominated American religion) has been eclipsed by social media.

For me, the most telling of Fr. Rohr’s keen observations was this one: “How you do anything is how you do everything.” If an individual chooses to view life through the lenses of status addiction, exceptionalism, perfectionism, and narcissism, he or she is going to follow whatever pathways lead to the most status. Sometimes, however, church leaders actually remember to tell people that life isn’t about status. So who wants to stick around and hear sermons about how to be a morally courageous person (the transformational system) when you can learn from social media and the happiness gurus how wonderful you already are?

When enough individuals find a paradigm that gives them more of what they want, they’re naturally going to choose it. It doesn’t mean they’ll actually be any happier or healthier – they just have to believe they will. This is the price of having free will.

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Yes we have talked about this before and I have said that it is also easy to observe that this has happened quite frequently in the history of Christianity. It has never meant the end of Christianity in the past. What typically happens is a change of thinking or strategy in Christianity and it comes back stronger than ever.

Biblical literalism and antiscience certainly isn’t helping and that is one of the things that has to go for these are running Christianity into the ground. Truth wins in the long run and science is most assuredly on the side of truth. But I think there are resilient truths in Christianity also. We just have to find them with a bit weeding to get rid of the garbage that has come along for the ride for a while.

Corruption along with the political abuses is another old recurrent story which has turned people off of Christianity many times in the past also. But then soon follows the reformation of Christianity to cast these things aside again with another fresh start.

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This too is a theme that Rohr hammers on a lot (and rightly so). He applies it to the Enneagram project, but I think it could also be applied to our wider western (or specifically American) culture. I.e. Americans have historically / stereotypically only been impressed with that which works. In other words, if it does the job, it must be true. And inversely if it doesn’t put bread and butter on my table or solve my problems, then it is of no interest. And so contemplation or any surrounding theologies are marginalized.

It also interested me that Rohr referred to the U.S. as liking to think of itself as religious. You could almost hear him put that in scare quotes. Many Europeans (on Rohr’s view) think of Americans as fairly shallow. I.e. they are rough and tumble … ‘get to the point’ and ‘getter done!’, but if you scratch the surface, there isn’t anything there. So while Christianity has probably been in decline in Europe from before this last century, I nonetheless wonder if past U.S. attempted identification with certain forms of theism has contributed towards a general European disdain for the same?

While I tend to admire the contemplative side that Rohr is trying to revive, I do think any religious society that suppresses either the active side of faith or the contemplative side is not healthy. While Jesus certainly did give Mary the commendation, it was probably only because she was the one who needed it at the moment (in the face of an indignant Martha). But both Mary and Martha are necessary parts of our religious world.

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well put! Thanks.

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