In the spring of 1966, as America was entering a prolonged period of selfdoubting, Time posed a haunting question in a couple of lines of type on its cover. The magazine asked, in a classic, stark, and attention-grabbing palette of bright red letters on a black background, “Is God Dead?” During World War II, the story pointed out, the anti- Nazi Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer had written to a friend from his Berlin prison cell, “We are proceeding toward a time of no religion at all.”
More than forty-five years beyond that cover story, with sustained high unemployment, political paralysis, an intractable war or two, and even monster hurricanes, America is not feeling all that robust. While innumerable sermons explore what the endless series of ills signifies about God’s feelings toward America, Mark Chaves, a Duke professor of sociology, religion, and divinity, is more concerned with America’s feelings toward God.
Religion, American-style, is a study in paradox and ambiguity. Chaves notes, for example, that on the one hand, there are relatively few large congregations, and many more people say they attended services than actually did. On the other hand, those large congregations contain a disproportionate share of the churchgoing population, and the very biggest churches have become even bigger.
And a Chaves colleague, Grant Wacker, says that the historical church-state divide notwithstanding, “almost every reform in American society can be traced back to religious impulses.” From the push for desegregation to the protests against the Vietnam War, “the lines blur between where religion ends and where secular reform begins,” says Wacker, a professor of Christian history in the divinity school and director of graduate studies in the religion department. Speaking of President Obama’s mid-October bus tour through North Carolina, he adds, “Listen to his speech and how it ends. It’s ‘God bless America and God bless North Carolina.’ This is not just Michele Bachman or Rick Perry. This is America, and God is all over the place.”
Chaves’ new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, which Wacker calls emblematic of the “gift for taking lots of complex data and making it clear and accessible,” draws on two large surveys. They are both based at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago: the General Social Survey (GSS), a snapshot of Americans’ changing attitudes and behavior; and the National Congregations Study (NCS), which looks at American religious congregations across the religious spectrum. The longer-running of the two, the GSS has been conducted at least every other year since 1972. Directed by Chaves, the NCS surveys were carried out in 1998 and 2006-07. All of his findings point to one conclusion, which perhaps isn’t good news for God: No indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is going up.
Back in the 1950s, a striking 99 percent of Americans said they believed in God. Now, the figure is closer to 92 percent. It’s not easy to say something firm about the significance of that decline, Chaves says. “It’s a really good example of an interpretive conundrum. You could look at those figures and emphasize that 90 percent say they believe in God, compare that to rates you get in Europe, and conclude that we remain way more religious. That’s one side. The other side of the argument is that it’s been a steady, if slow, decline since the 1950s. So it’s a little like global warming, in the sense that a very gradual change over a long period of time can produce a major impact.”
The U.S. is not Europe: As one commentator observed some years ago in The New York Times, the conventional narrative is that “a battle plan for the war of attrition against religion” began with the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, and what emerged as contemporary Europe “is the closest thing to a godless civilization the world has ever known.” But Chaves notes that the proportion of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has been rising for a long time. In the 1950s, only 3 percent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation. Today, it’s about 18 percent, a minority, but an increasing minority. “The increase probably reflects a growing willingness among the least-religious people to say that they have no religion,” he says, “as well as a decline in meaningful attachments to religious traditions.”
That trend toward lack of affiliation hasn’t been going up in a straight line; it has gone up faster from 1990 to today than it did from 1950 to 1990. There’s a big generational component, Chaves says, meaning younger people are more likely than older people to say they have no religion. And each successive generation seems a little more likely to say that than the one before. “So it’s not just people who used to say they had some religion who stopped saying it. It’s that young people today are saying they have no religion at higher rates than young people before them.”
Chaves’ findings dispute some popularly accepted measures of religiosity—notably the assumption, based on polling results, that 40 percent of Americans attend religious services. He pegs the actual figure at 25 percent. The difference represents the gap between how people respond to direct questions about their attendance, on the one hand, and what they note about their behavior in time diaries, or day-by-day listings of their activities, on the other. Congregation headcounts, he says, also point to the lower figure.
“This phenomenon is very similar to what political scientists have discovered with voting,” says Chaves. “People kind of think of themselves as voters and mainly they are voters, but they just didn’t happen to vote in the most recent election. Still, they’ll say they did. It’s the same thing with church attendance. They are trying to answer truthfully what they think the question is really asking. They think they’re being asked, ‘Are you a church person?’ And if they say, ‘No, I didn’t go to church this week,’ they’ll think they’re misrepresenting their identities to the pollster.”
Although weekly attendance rates have been relatively stable since 1990, the percentage of those who never attend religious services has increased. Older people have long been over-represented in American congregations, but that over-representation has been exacerbated lately. In the 1970s, frequent church attendees were about three years older, on average, than the general population; today, they are about five years older. Most striking of all, Chaves says, is a steady decline in the percentage of people who report growing up with religiously active fathers—from nearly 70 percent for those born before 1900 to about 45 percent for those born after 1970. “There can be little doubt that Americans are increasingly less likely to grow up in religiously active households.”