By the numbers: A Gallup poll released last week found just 47% of Americans reported belonging to a house of worship, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% as recently as 1999.
Context: The decline in membership is primarily driven by a sharp rise in the "nones" — Americans who express no religious preference.
The big picture: The story of a more secular America is chiefly — though not entirely — one of generational change.
- The percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion rose from 8% between 1998 and 2000 to 21% over the past three years, while the percentage of nones who do not belong to a house of worship has risen as well.
- Membership in houses of worship is correlates with age, with the oldest Americans much more likely to be church members than younger adults.
- But while church membership is lower among younger generations, the dropoff is particularly stark among millennials and Gen Z, who are about 30 percentage points lower than Americans born before 1946, compared to 8 points and 16 points respectively for baby boomers and Gen X.
- Children who grow up without organized religion are less likely to join houses of worship when they become adults, so it stands to reason that the secularization trend will only continue in the future, barring major demographic or cultural changes.
Yes, but: Generational replacement — the idea that society-wide changes in values between the young and the old can be attributed to their different circumstances growing up — doesn't tell the entire story.
In a piece last year for Foreign Affairs, the political scientist Ronald F. Inglehart argued that as birthrates have dropped thanks in part to contraception and falling infant mortality, modern societies have become less observant "because they no longer need to uphold the kinds of gender and sexual norms that the major world religions have instilled for centuries."
What's next: As religion decreasingly becomes something Americans practice, it may instead become another identity, subsumed into the ongoing culture wars.
- The trend may also shake up the electorate. The journalist Matt Yglesias noted that when a white person switches from being Christian to non-affiliated, they are more likely to become a Democrat, "but when a Black person makes the same switch, the correlation goes in the other direction."
- That could help explain the fairly secular Donald Trump having partial success in increasing the GOP's share of the non-white vote in 2020.