US flag and religious cross

Is religion in the U.S. doing a vanishing act?

For generations, the United States has been considered a religious outlier—its citizens more dedicated to their faith and houses of worship than the rest of the developed world.

But that American devotion to religion may be waning, a decline that is mirrored across the western world.

A new study finds a slow, steady drop in the number of Americans who claim religious affiliations, attend church regularly, and believe in God. It also finds that these drops are driven by generational differences.

“None of these declines is happening fast, but the signs are now unmistakable, says coauthor David Voas, a social scientist at University College London.

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“It has become clear that American religiosity has been declining for decades, and the decline is driven by the same dynamic—generational differences—that has driven religious decline across the developed world.”

Published in the American Journal of Sociology, the study examined US data from the General Social Survey, which is conducted every two years, and compared it with similarly broad data from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Across the board, people have slowly become less religious over time; the US decline has been so gradual that until recently scientists haven’t had enough data to be sure the trend was real, says coauthor Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, divinity and religion at Duke University.

“The US has long been considered an exception to the modern claim that religion is declining,” Chaves says. “But if you look at the trajectory, and the generational dynamic that is producing the trajectory, we may not be an exception after all.”

Reasons for the decline

The study didn’t draw comparisons between religions or religious denominations but did confirm the slow drip is generational. A few examples:

  • 94 percent of Americans born before 1935 claim a religious affiliation. For the generation born after 1975, that number drops to 71 percent.
  • 68 percent of Americans 65 and older say they have no doubt God exists. But just 45 percent of young adults, ages 18-30, have the same belief.
  • 41 percent of people 70 and older say they attend church services at least once a month, compared to just 18 percent of people 60 and younger.

The data are consistent over a long stretch of time, Chaves says.

“If you break it down over five-year chunks, each age group is a little less religious than the one before it.”

Source: Duke University