May 19, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The importance of religion in the US is shrinking? Think again
Don’t confuse religious institutions for religious belief.
NPR reported on a new survey that suggests that the importance of religion in the lives of normal Americans is shrinking. The survey follows similar surveys that have, altogether, fueled the idea that as the number of “religiously unaffiliated” has risen, so has the secularization of America.
That’s almost certainly wrong.
You can read the PRRI report here. I’m going to point out what’s obvious, or what I think is obvious, which is this: Just because Americans say that they are not “religiously affiliated” does not necessarily mean that the importance of religion is shrinking.
Maybe it’s that old-time religion that still burns within me, but Americans don’t need a church to have a religion. God is available for worship whether you’re looking up to him through stained-glass or not. And one’s system of morality is demonstrated in ways as varied as the variety of religions. Church attendance can only reflect what it can.
I haven’t gone to the gospel hall in decades. Does that mean I don’t carry with me all the things I absorbed as a child? I admit I have tried to forget, but I haven’t. Sure, I do not think of myself as Christian Gathered unto the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. (That’s the full name of the Protestant sect that I was born into). But I do think of myself as a follower of Jesus and the teachings of God’s equal and universal love.
I am “religiously unaffiliated.”
I am, however, religious.
So let’s stop pretending that church attendance is a stand-in for religion. Religion is expressed in ways that may or may not reflect church attendance. Let’s concede that we’re talking about church attendance, because it’s something we can measure. It’s easier to talk about something we can measure than something we can’t.
Most of all, let’s admit to what we can and can’t know. The importance of religion might be shrinking, but if we’re going to use church attendance as our main metric, we can only know half the truth.
Moreover, the relative strength and weakness of institutions should not be mistaken for the relative strength and weakness of the beliefs that those institutions were built on. But that’s what we tend to do.
More and more Americans are skipping church on Sundays. Therefore, we tell ourselves, the importance of religion in American life must be shrinking. The reality is probably that something about those institutions has gone wrong, and church-goers are expressing themselves without the trouble of actually expressing themselves.
The PRRI survey found that of all the people who said that they had left religion, more than a third of them are Catholic. Has something gone wrong with the Catholic Church? We know the answer to that question, but in addition to sex-abuse scandals, one after the other, there’s this: the Catholic Church has been increasingly shrill about abortion, especially now that abortion is no longer a national right.
Instead of arguing with priests who can’t be argued with, Catholics are staying home. Does that mean, in their minds, they’re less Catholic?
I doubt it.
Finally, there’s the confusing of religious affiliation and secularization, which is part of the larger confusion about what “secular” means.
“Secular” does not mean the absence of religion. It means that religion is one of many factors that make up an individual, who, with other individuals, makes up a society. A secular society is therefore not a religion-less society. It’s a society that does not privilege religion — one religion or all religions — above other considerations of social life.
Yet surveys like PRRI’s are typically taken to mean that Americans are becoming less religious and that America is becoming more secular.
Americans are probably as religious as they ever were, despite drops in church attendance. They’ve just found different ways of expressing it.
America is also probably as secular as it’s ever been.
There are still people around who think religion – especially theirs – should be the top consideration in social life. There are still people around who think religion – even theirs – is just one of many. (There are others who don’t care either way.) Secularization is therefore not the absence of religion so much as the product of the political conflict about the proper role of religion in American social life.
Church attendance isn’t going to tell us that.
It tells us only half the truth.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.