Survey finds massive decline in religion in US, world

Does God play a role in your life? A growing number of Americans, and people around the world, say No.

A new study released this week found an astonishing drop off in the experience of active religious live around the world, as more and more people describe themselves as non-religious or outright atheist.

The report is drawing particular attention in Ireland, once a bastion of Roman Catholic culture, where now only 47% of people describe themselves as disconnected from a faith-based life.

The Irish Examiner newspaper connected the shift to the clergy scandal:

Fr Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests said the numbers of religious had likely declined due to increased prosperity, education, greater independence, and the handling of child abuse complaints.

Kieran O’Connor, a sociologist at University College Cork, said the rapid distancing from religion was a direct response to the cover-up of abuse in the Catholic Church.

“Six years ago, we were affluent and educated. That change has not just materialised recently. So the Church’s handling of the abuse crisis has clearly affected our views of religion.”

But it’s not just Ireland, or Roman Catholics, who are seeing a massive transformation in the way people view and experience religion.

According to the survey, which you can read in full here, the average decline in the number of people describing themselves as religious over the last seven years was 9%.  That’s a remarkable change.

In the US, meanwhile, the decline was 13%.

Taken in isolation, this survey might be see as an outlier, but a wide range of studies suggest that the young, the well-educated and the affluent are increasingly turning away from organized religion.  This from the National Catholic Reporter.

It is no secret that Christianity is in decline in the West. A Newsweek cover story in March 2009 reported that 86 percent of the U.S. population self-identified as Christians in 1990.

By 2009, the percentage dropped to 76 percent, while the number who claimed “no religion” doubled to 16 percent in that same period. Among those under the age of 30, the figure declaring “no religion” was close to 30 percent.

If the trend continues, the “no religion” plus the “non-Christian” categories will outnumber Christians by the year 2042.

I have grappled repeatedly with the notion that a decline in religiosity equals a decline in moral or cultural values, as argued by many within the US Christian community.

But even if you don’t share a view that this shift is somehow dire or dangerous, it is remarkable nonetheless.

A centerpiece of human civilization for thousands of years — the conviction that a higher power influences and judges our actions — seems to be moving to the margins of our collective lives with astonishing speed.

That has implications for everything from the way our charities work to the way our big political parties organize their messages and their platforms.

But heated rhetoric aside, the big takeaway here is not that faith has been pushed out of public life.  It’s that more and more of our neighbors are choosing to leave faith out of their personal lives as well.

So here are my questions to you:  Do you see a hollowing out of your church?  Fewer people in the pews?  What does this decline in religious activity mean?

And if you’re one of the people who have stepped away from active faith, is there a way that organized churches could draw you back?

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22 Comments on “Survey finds massive decline in religion in US, world”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    It does seem that when I go to church I am visiting an old folks home.
    The decline does not surprise me because of all the reasons stated above.
    I totally disagree with the notion that a decline in religiosity equals a decline in moral or cultural values, as argued by many within the US Christian community.
    Often I see people of little or no faith having greater moral and cultural values than those who shout the most that they have them.

  2. Kathy says:

    I was part of a denominational church for 4 years and then attended a non-denominational/evangelical church for 30.

    In the late 70’s, there was a breaking away from tradition and a new kind of church began springing up: the organ and hymns were traded for guitars, drums, keyboard, and choruses – since God was closer to us than what had been taught – and that defined our worship.

    I think the non-denominational churches are thriving here in the U.S. Many have become relevant to today’s issues and are seeker friendly in order to bring people in. For the money you ask? Perhaps. But there are many sincere folks who want people to be reconciled to God and live a life of closeness to God.

    That said, I do not see fewer people in the pews with my church or others like it.

    However, non denominational and denominational churches often lack in keeping the focus on loving their neighbor. A church and its people who have a strong focus on those who are suffering in one way or another could reach out more than they are. This is a sacrifice for most of us since we all have our lives and are busy. But I truly believe this kind of caring and loving community will draw people back or bring people in.

    People need people. It’s how we’re wired. And everyone responds positively to someone caring about them.

  3. Kathy says:

    I agree with your last statement, Pete.

    Unfortunately, this makes people stay away.

  4. Larry says:

    I think it is less a decline in faith than a decline in following organized religion. The Catholic Church, of which I have personal experience, for years kept its faithfull in ignorance, particularly of scripture and other religions. Additionally, they controlled members through financial and social pressures. That worked well until recently, when people began to have much greater access to information and learning. Broadening their experience and knowledge exposed the hypocrisy of Church leadership. When you add the disgusting revelations of systemic pedophilia and the ensuing cover-ups it’s a wonder anyone goes to a Catholic Church at all.

  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I have no factual information to back this up by my gut feeling is there was an increase in religiosity over the last couple of decades and maybe the drop represents a return to previous level rather than a turning away.

    Maybe it was a Millenial thing, people finding religion because they thought the world would end. I don’t know. But it sure seems like there has been a big increase in the number of Christian radio stations and storefront churches of mysterious denomination (at least mysterious to me)in the last couple of decades. I am a life-long and devoted Atheist after all so what the heck do I know.

  6. mervel says:

    I think the data for the West is pretty solid, a general decline in attendance. I am surprised if the decline is world wide though, but maybe?

    I think part of it in the West is two things; one as Kathy and Larry described people got tired of bad leadership and denominations in general and simply went to a non-denominational walk, but were still Christians or whatever the case may be.

    I think the other force at least since the 1970’s has been the social pressure of having to go to Church or Mass, particularly among mainline Protestants and Catholics is over. No one cares if you go to mass, you don’t make business connections you don’t have social connections and there is no social pressure to go or be involved in religion. So in Ireland if you went to Mass for reasons of habit or convention or because your family and friends thought you should; and you kept going out of social pressure, now with the scandals and so forth, why go at all?

    I know growing up, my parents went to church every Sunday as did all of our neighbors and friends, it was what people did. My parents were very non-religious people, I have never seen them open a bible or pray at home or talk or even mention Jesus or God. But they went through the process because at that time it was what you did. So I think that part is now over, today people like my parents would not go to Church.

    As a Christian I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. I think we need to do a better job of reaching out, but its not a numbers game that is for sure. It is interesting though.

  7. Paul says:

    Brain, I think you mean active religious “life” as opposed to “live”? Don’t you have this stuff edited?

  8. Paul says:

    Definitly on the decline. The reality is that this is an evolution we should expect. Religion was the “law” that was needed to keep us in line in the past. We don’t need it now that we have a better legal system. The problem I see is that things like morality and charity need to be conveyed to children in some other way. We try and do this with our kids but some parents need help if not from the church where?

  9. mervel says:

    I am not sure I agree that we have a spiritual life because we need a law to keep us in line.

    But maybe this is the ascension of Rand and that sort of thinking that we talked about from the other thread?

  10. Zeke says:

    “Definitly” ????

  11. wj says:

    There’s been some really interesting research on periods of increased religiosity. One finding is that the introduction of new media – printing press, radio, tv, etc – is tied more closely to it than any other factor.

    This might explain why American religiosity became more fevered in the late 1990s – when the Internet became a major part of our lives. As we’ve grown accustomed to this new medium, religiosity is in decline.

    Another factor is that while Guttenberg, Fr. Coughlin and Pat Robertson made such hay with print, radio and tv, atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins had similar success with the web.

    And one more: think about those people who aren’t sure, maybe they didn’t get the full-court press from parents or other authority figures, or they’re simply questioning a religion’s fundamentals. There are lots of people like this in the U.S. today. So, if someone has an open mind about religion and s/he is exposed to a rational deconstruction of religious faith, it’s highly unlikely that s/he will wander back into the fold.

    It’s really hard to believe in the Wizard of Oz once the curtain’s pulled back.

  12. mervel says:

    There is a rich apologetic tradition that has been somewhat lost in the past generation at least for Christians. CS Lewis and today people like Dr. Collins (human genome fame) do a good job of showing that OZ does not need the curtain. However even they both proclaim that in the end faith is not a human effort to be arrived at through our own intellectual efforts. There are other ways of knowing.

    Anyway though that is why these numbers are interesting; I do think they go up and down over time.

  13. Paul says:

    “I am not sure I agree that we have a spiritual life because we need a law to keep us in line. ”

    Mervel, that was not my point. It is a fact that religious law was a basis for the legal system in many places in the past (in some places it still is today). This is not a very important function for the church now in some places.

    When you didn’t have an adequate police force the way you kept folks in line was by scaring them that if they did this or that they would be punished in certain ways. That is one reason why when you enter a large European cathedral you feel small. You better do what the man up on the podium tells you to do!

    Spirituality is a different dimension of religion altogether.

  14. Peter Hahn says:

    I would add to Paul’s point about the legal system, that organized religions also provided a social safety net, that the secular world has now taken over very effectively. They also frequently handled education and health care.

  15. mervel says:


    I think the study Brian linked though also dealt with spirituality, it basically said that non-belief and total secularism was on the rise, what I would call strict atheism.

  16. Terence says:

    Very interesting takes from everyone here on the situation. I like the point that losing religion doesn’t lead straight to wickedness: many non-believers are keenly interested in ethics and finding a way to agree on values without requiring a belief in supernatural beings.

    As for the original question, about the experience on the ground: yes, many churches in the area are nearly empty. There’s a recognizable pattern for recognizing when a language is dying out: when most of the speakers are over 60. In some ways public religious observance seems like a language that’s disappearing: there are still lots of fluent speakers, but the end is in sight. At least that’s my take.

  17. Newt says:

    I totally agree with Terrence’s point about declining church attendance locally, and it being analagous to a dying language. Which, to me, is very sad.

    On a slightly different topic, didn’t this blog used to have a spell check? I caught two mistakes in my sentence above, and think I missed another (no decent dictionary at hand).

  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    There are more empty seats in the church of proper spelling as well. But u r welcome @ the new non-domino church of iPad english.

  19. Pete Klein says:

    One of the problems I see with religion, all religions, is an overemphasis on what you must believe to be a card-carrying member. The Apostles Creed is a perfect example of believe, believe, believe. It borders on brainwashing.
    The danger for religions of this “must believe” stuff is creates a situation where if a person questions one of the “must believes,” the whole system becomes in danger of falling.

  20. Paul says:

    Pete, I think that this may be tied to what I comment on above. There is no room for interpretation when the church is the law.

    And that may be why some religions, reformed Judaism, for example are doing quite well.

    When I married my wife who is a reformed Jew we met with the Rabbi that married us ahead of time for several meetings. At one he asked me if I believed in god. Being a good catholic I quickly said “of course I believe in god sir”. Then he asked my wife the same question. She said that she hopes that there is a god and she thinks that there may be but she struggles with the concept. While I am waiting for the Rabbis response I am thinking (again as a good catholic raised in catholic schools) that this is it. He is going to say get out! Or I figure lightning bolts are going to crash through the roof and kill us all. Instead he says something like “yes very interesting, it is our job as Jews to struggle with these questions, it is part of our religion, the term Israel comes from ‘to struggle with god'”. Well I was shocked. This was quite an enlightening experience for me.

    And Pete that may be why my religion is struggling and hers is doing pretty well.

  21. Pete Klein says:

    Paul, I know exactly what you are saying. Some of my favorite passages in the Old Testament highlight the conflict between man and God. Job is but one example.
    Here’s a thought. If Adam and Eve hadn’t put on fig leaves after eating the forbidden fruit and had come clean with what they had done when God asked them why, would God have forgiven them for being dumb, stupid kids?
    I’ve always thought their real sin was trying to lie to God.

  22. mervel says:

    Every community is different.

    For example the Catholic Church where I attend Mass IS pretty full most Sunday’s, daily Mass, not so much. On the other side I see some of the Evangelical Churches up here doing pretty well, the one out in Madrid is going great guns.

    So these experiences are all different. Also the North East is less religious than the rest of the US so we may be seeing that impact.

    Over the past 40 years in the US among Christian groups, mainline relatively theologically liberal protestant churches have lost the most. Evangelical Churches have gained.

    So who knows? These survey’s are tricky I think. We all read into them our own ideas.

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