Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1997
Volume 8, Number 2

The End of American Religion "As We Know It?"

Charles L. Harper
Associate Professor of Sociology

Public opinion data from national surveys present us with a welter of confusing and seemingly contradictory facts and statistics about the changing status of religion in America. You can use them to make a case that churches and religion are losing their influence and that commitment to Christianity is slipping in important ways. This "reading" of the evidence supports the ideas of many scholars and theologians that secularization is a slow but pervasive process resulting in declining vitality of religion in American and other industrial societies. But you can also "read" the facts to make a case for the dramatic and vital persistence of religion in America. Some argue that religion is not only persisting and vibrant, but that we may be on the cusp of the revitalization of religion--albeit in changed forms.

Consider the following recent poll findings that may indicate religious decline.

  • Church attendance declined pervasively in the last few years, but more among younger than older adults, and more among Roman Catholics than Protestants. Sunday School attendance among those denominations that have them is also significantly decreasing.
  • Regular Bible reading plummeted in the last few years. In 1992 about 50% of Americans said they read the Bible at least once a week--the figure had dropped to 34% by 1996.
  • Polls indicate a vast illiteracy about traditional Christian beliefs and actual knowledge of the Bible. For example, 84% of Americans had no clue about the meaning of "The Great Commission" in the New Testament.
  • Americans, even Christians, have amnesia about Christmas. When asked what makes Christmas important to them more said "time to be with family" rather than celebrating the birth of Christ. Americans are more likely to recall the significance of April 15 than they are to connect Christmas with the birth of Christ.
  • 71% of Americans say they never experience God's presence during a worship service. Roman Catholics are more likely than Protestants to say that worship services are boring.

But consider the following findings that may indicate the persistence and vitality of religion.

  • 96% of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit.
  • About 90% of American adults claim a religious preference, and 70% claim membership in a church, synagogue, or other religious body.
  • About one third of adults describe themselves as born-again Christians, and in spite of impressions, that proportion has remained relatively constant for the last 15 years. A much smaller proportion claim affiliation with the "new religious right."
  • Jews comprise about 2% of American adults. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists claim less than 1% each, proportions that are slowly growing, reflecting both immigration and conversion.
  • Among the "unchurched," many believe in God and hold relatively conventional religious beliefs about God and the Bible. They value spiritual experiences, and about 65% say they may join a church or synagogue some day (a proportion that increased significantly in the last two decades). Only 3% of adults say they definitely do not believe in God.
  • Four of every 10 American adults belong to a small group that meets regularly and provides caring support for those who participate. These include a wide variety of both religious and secular self-help and study groups. Participation in these is not casual; 64% of these people say they meet regularly, at least twice a month.
  • "Religion" in America remains a potent force that is connected to other social institutions. Religious belief and affiliation, for example, are powerful predictors of political attitudes and voting behavior, equaling and now often surpassing the influence of other things that social scientists have emphasized (like economic class, ethnicity, and formal education).

Looking at these two sets of empirical findings reveals a picture of change that is complex and often confusing to lay people and scholars alike (including me). "What is going on?" is indeed a fair question. Let me begin to try to reduce the complexity by providing context for otherwise "disembodied" empirical trend data.

One context is cross-national. Even though church leaders, pollsters, and some scholars bemoan the declining vitality of religion, it is much more "vital" in almost every sense in America than in other industrialized nations of the world. Americans are far more likely to believe, belong, and participate in dynamic religious organizations than are their counterparts in England, France, Germany, Sweden, and Italy. In those nations church attendance is so low that many people attend only to symbolize three important biographic events: to get hatched, matched, and dispatched! Indeed, the question that scholars of religion always needed to explain was "why are Americans so religious compared to everyone else?" Well, a believer in religious decline might ask, " Is not America now subject to the same secularizing forces that made religion such an empty formality in much of Europe?"

But the context of America history is of little help either. Even though religion is stamped on American history and the constitution, religious historians and scholars estimate that in 1776 as few as 10 to17% of Americans claimed any religious affiliation at all, and that the popular attitude toward religion was one of vast indifference--though few wished to harm religious freedom. Indeed, American history has been described as the cumulative "churching of America" as a result of successive waves of evangelism beginning in the 18th century and continuing today. In consequence, religion and churches became an unprecedented part of American consciousness and social landscape, and continue to be today. What about the pollsters' findings of vast religious and biblical illiteracy? Probably true, though my guess is that it is not worse for most people than it was in the 1890s or 1930s, about which we have little data. What about the decline in Bible reading? Probably true, but does it reflect a falling away from religion, or a general decline in reading in the TV age, particularly among younger cohorts?

But wait. Hardly any observers deny that in some sense there are powerful secularizing forces at work. Recent declines in church attendance and denominational "loyalty" reported by pollsters are real. Even such venerable chroniclers of the "pulse" of America as George Gallup find religious commitments and beliefs "very broad but not particularly deep or profound." And his evangelical counterpart pollster (George Barna) is convinced that "traditional Christianity" is losing its grip. Furthermore, many church and ecclesiastical leaders are alarmed by rampant religious subjectivism and the extent to which people feel free to disagree with confessional faiths and doctrines.

What is in glacially slow erosion is denominational religion understood as a kind of social identity and affiliation--akin to ethnicity or kinship. Along with this is a decline in the "binding power" of doctrinal beliefs and confessional creeds. By contrast, "religiousness is increasingly experienced as an individual journey or quest for spiritual growth by seekers, and Americans feel freer to "shop around" for faiths, groups, and experiences that facilitate such a journey. Much to the chagrin of ecclesiastical authorities, we are slowly becoming a nation of "church hoppers" (including in and out of churches altogether). Growing subjectivism and voluntarism are most observable among Protestants and in the vast but largely subterranean milieu of sects and cults . But they are also occurring among Roman Catholics who, though more reluctant to break their formal confessional ties--even when they are quite alienated from the Church--are quite willing to "shop around" for suitable spiritual directors, priests, parishes, and movements within the vast multiplex world of Roman Catholicism. In the new climate some churches thrive. Almost irrespective of their doctrines, they are organizations that provide small groups aimed at niches for individuals on their own spiritual journeys.

Classical thinking among sociological thinkers like Emile Durkheim understood religion as a set of beliefs, practices, and rituals about sacred things that helped to create and solidify a moral community and make social order possible. Contemporary sociologists, observing the slow decline in denominational and confessional religion and the increase in radical individualism and subjectivist spiritual quests, understand religion as a symbol system about the sacred realm more related to the subjective life problems, transitions, and crises in the lives of individuals. I think both views are limited and too reductionistic.

Religiousness is not declining, but surely some social forms of religion are. And beyond touching the life worlds of individuals, religion remains a social institution (like families, politics, and economic organizations) that is acted upon (described by the secularist views). It is also an institutional phenomena that is partly an autonomous force with the capacity to shape the social and cultural terrain of "other realms." Quite simply, but abstractly, the contemporary transformation of religion is part of the underlying cultural transformation through which we are now passing--along with our politics, education, media, and families. This transformation has been given various names (post-industrialism, postmodernism, globalization, etc.). But consider this: The social forms that we have long taken for granted as essential parts of our social and individual lives--the nation state, national corporations, and churches--are all social forms that emerged as particularly adapted to an industrial world, say, between 1700 and today. All are now threatened by change. Nation states and national corporations are both threatened, from below (by subnational factions and proliferating entrepreneurial businesses) and globalization "from above" (by transnational political organizations and corporations). "Religion as we know it" is similarly threatened, from above (by interfaith ecumenical "joint ventures") and from below (by religious individualism, subjectivism, and voluntarism).

Are we witnessing the slow end of religion as we know it? Probably so, as does every epoch. Are we about to see the end of religion in forms adapted to what we are becoming? Don't bet on it.


Gallup, George, Religion in America: 1996 Report, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Religious Research Center.

Barna, George, 1996. The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, Oxnard, Calif.: Barna Spiritual Research Group.

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark, 1992. The Churching of America: Winners and Losers in the Economic Struggle, 1776-1990. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Thomas, George, 1996. Cultural Analysis of Religious Change and Movements, Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 66, No. 3, Pp. 285-302.