It’s Holy Week for Christians and Passover for Jews; there are also two Hindu holidays this week. But as Gallup reports, the percentage of Americans who belong to houses of worship where such days in the religious calendar are observed has been rapidly falling in this century. For the first time since Gallup began compiling religious membership statistics in 1937 (when 73 percent of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple), a minority — only 47 percent — now say they belong to some sort of congregation.
Though there has been a decline in religious memberships among older generations in the past 20 years, the big new factor is the sharply lower level among millennials (36 percent report memberships). These numbers should not, however, be conflated with the percentage of Americans expressing (or declining to express) a religious preference, since a sizable minority of Americans profess to follow some particular religious tradition without affiliating with a house of worship. But the ranks of the irreligious continue to climb, their numbers nearly doubling among Baby Boomers (7 percent to 13 percent) and Gen-Xers (11 percent to 20 percent) since 1998 and so far comprising 31 percent of millennials and 33 percent of Gen-Zers.
Gallup has just enough data on Christians (though not other religious traditions) to give a pretty detailed breakdown of where and how rapidly the declines in church membership are occurring, with Easterners, Catholics, self-identified Democrats, the unmarried, and the non-college-educated showing the largest relative drops.
Do these trends indicate the eventual collapse of religious observance and, ultimately, of religious belief? Are secular folks who think of faith as just a slowly dying species of pre-modern superstition right? That’s not so clear. This definitely isn’t the most “churchless” period of American history; one leading estimate showed that a majority of people in this country did not belong to a religious organization from the beginning of the Republic until the turn of the 20th century. What we tend to think of as “traditional” levels of religious activity are really just those characteristic of the period from the end of World War II until 1960 — i.e., the period when many baby-boomers were growing up. For those who belong to what I call the Church of the Day Before Yesterday, who tend to divinize the culture of their childhood or their parents, America has had a terrible falling off of religious belief and practice. From the broader perspective of national — not to mention world — history, we’re in another of the many phases of the complex ways people understand the universe and one another.