America News Analysis

A major US study suggests dogma is in decline


The United States is a “spiritual, but not religious” country, and getting more so, despite the best efforts of younger traditionalists. At least, that’s what the data from the latest Pew Religious Landscape Study, released last week, appear to show. 

The good news is that belief in God, or a God of some kind, is almost universal. Ninety-two per cent of Americans hold this conviction: even among the religiously unaffiliated, 70 per cent believe in God with some level of certainty. In addition, 74 per cent believe in an afterlife, 79 per cent believe in miracles, and 68 per cent believe in angels and demons. 

At the same time, religious observance is down significantly since Pew’s last study in the late Aughts. The proportion of religiously affiliated Americans who attend church monthly or more, versus the number who attend once or twice a year has declined since 2007. Today, the latter is 54 per cent, the former 45 per cent. “Most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith,” is how the study’s authors put it. 

It’s hard to put oneself in the mind of a person who believes, as apparently millions do, that there is a spiritual war between angels and demons, the celestial armies of good and evil, but there is no reason to take sides in it. Or to be one of the millions of Americans who believe in heaven but show little interest in religious practices that would enable them to get there. Perhaps they have imbibed the latent Protestantism of American society and decided that, if they have the right feelings in their heart, they’ll be alright. 

The situation for Catholics in the study is not much more encouraging, although on several metrics our crisis is perhaps less severe than that of our separated brethren. The share of Americans identifying as Catholic has dropped from about a quarter to a fifth in the last 10 years. That decline is slightly less than that of Protestants. They have declined from 51 per cent to 43 per cent in the same period. 

At the same time, 42 per cent of Catholics attend church at least once a week, which is lower than the attendance at Evangelical churches (whose members have no obligation to attend every week). Fifty-eight per cent of Catholics pray daily, compared to 53 per cent of mainline Protestants.  

These findings have all sorts of implications, chiefly that those who are less involved in their parishes are less knowledgeable about their faith, while frequent churchgoers tend to be more conservative on moral questions. Opposition to abortion tracks closely with frequent church attendance, for instance.  

Only 34 per cent of Catholics see a conflict between their religion and modern society, and one suspects that those people also strongly overlap with frequent Mass-goers. “A plurality of adults who are affiliated with a religion want their religion to preserve its traditional beliefs and practices rather than either adjust to new circumstances or adopt modern beliefs and practices,” the study’s authors write. 

The trend of decreasing religiosity appears to continue in the younger generation. Only 49 per cent of millennials are Christian, and 40 per cent have no religious affiliation – four times as many as the other faiths combined.  

This means that within a generation or two, if trends continue, America will no longer be a majority Christian country. Moreover, the drop-off in religious faith over age groups is much more pronounced among Catholics than among Protestants.  

In the 50 to 64 age group, 66 per cent of Protestants are absolutely certain of the existence of God, compared to 54 per cent of Catholics, whereas in the 18 to 29 demographic, 40 per cent of Catholics are certain compared to 64 per cent of Protestants. 

Meanwhile, 79 per cent of Catholics believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, and 77 per cent think there is more than one way to interpret their religion. The comparison to Orthodox Christians on moral issues is also interesting. Fewer Orthodox Christians (30 per cent) say abortion should be illegal in most or all circumstances, compared to 43 per cent of Catholics, while more Orthodox than Catholics say that homosexuality should be discouraged. 

All of this seems to be bearing out quite accurately the prediction of a certain Fr Joseph Ratzinger in 1969: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.” 

As a member of the ordinariate – comprised mostly, for the time being, of people who have chosen to become Catholic and have often lost their church buildings – I think this prediction applies especially well to us. The mainline Protestant denominations seem to also bear out the prediction that ministers who imagine themselves to be therapists or social workers are being replaced by therapists and social workers.