As religiosity continues to erode in America, data indicates that decline in churchgoing is not driven by ideology.
It’s been common knowledge since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in America several years ago that empty pews have sharply increased, as churches, often controversially, closed their doors to protect congregants from spread of the deadly disease among their flocks.
But in reading some year-old statistics on the pandemic’s effects on religious ritual, I was surprised to learn that this painful decline in American church attendance has been fairly evenly distributed, even across wide ideological and income-level divides.
I had assumed, wrongly, that the drop would have in general most severely affected liberal rather than conservative churchgoers, and poorer rather than richer believers.
But the influential evangelical periodical Christianity Today reported earlier this year that sagging churchgoing was a collective disappointment throughout the religious ecosystem, regardless of exiting churchgoers’ political ideology or socio-economic class:
The decline in religious attendance varies by a few demographics. Americans who are younger or older are more likely than those in the middle age groups to have experienced a drop in attendance. It is also more pronounced among married adults without children under age 18. Some 30 percent of married adults without young children attended religious services regularly in 2021, down from 40 percent in 2019.
On the other hand, ideology does not appear to be linked to the decline. Conservatives are more likely than moderates and liberals to attend religious services in the first place, but the decline in attendance is similar in all three groups. Likewise, there are no significant differences by income.
With race, however, the results were different, with Black Americans “more likely than others” to have experienced a significant drop in churchgoing. Christianity Today reported in January that,
In 2019, 45 percent of Black Americans attended religious service regularly. But by 2021, the share dropped to 30 percent, a difference of 15 percent. The decline in other racial/ethnical groups is between 5 to 6 percent.
Another non-intuitive result of the pandemic has been more recent: a decrease during the 2021-2022 academic year in the percentage of youth who identify as nonreligious.
Citing Ryan Burge of the Religious News Service, the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) reported in a newsletter this week that,
Over the past few decades, the number of “nones” and nonreligious people in the United States has gradually increased. In 2019, Ryan Burge reported just over 47 percent of Gen Z were nonreligious. However, during COVID when college students were at home—isolated and physically distant from their secular friends on campus— the percentage of those identifying as nonreligious actually dropped a couple of percentage points.
Considering that the youngest new generation—Gen Z—is the “least religious generation in history,” this sag in irreligiosity is surprising.
SSA surmised that, with 80% of its membership coming from religious families, being away from home and isolated from friends and family during the pandemic made them susceptible to “strong pressure” from family “to conform and participate in religious activities.”
But, according to Christianity Today, other issues led Americans away from church attendance during the still-alive pandemic, as the number of regular churchgoers fell 6%, from 34% in 2019 to 28% in 2021, while the number nonreligious citizens who had never or seldom gone to church before increased by 7%.
Some clergy believe that the drop in church-service attendance due to coronavirus fear will prove temporary in the end, but others aren’t so sure the erosion won’t be permanent.
Indeed, American church membership fell below 50 percent for the first time in 2020, Gallup reported, tracking data dating back to 1940. Christianity Today reported that there has been no increase in US church attendance since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008.
Whereas nonreligious Americans may see the growing erosion of religion and religious influence in the US as a good thing, conservative Christians characterize “empty pews as an American health crisis” potentially leading to more depression, higher suicide rates, and more drug and alcohol overdoses as people deal with isolation, alienation and separation from faith, according to the Institute for Family Studies (IFS).
Wrote Wendy Wang, IFS director of research, in January:
Americans who attend religious services frequently are more likely to be married and have children. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, religious Americans are also more likely than non-religious Americans to have a stronger desire for marriage and children. A decline in religious service attendance not only has the potential to negatively affect public health, but also family stability and population growth in America.
Nonetheless, data over several decades strongly indicates that the dechurching of American is inevitable.
Still, what’s up with the slight recent uptick in the number of Gen Z youth—America’s least religious generation ever—who identify as religious?