American students begin their day with a patriotic pledge vowing allegiance to “one nation, under God”, while U.S. presidents and politicians regularly end speeches with the words, “May God bless America”. Indeed, since our nation’s founding by pilgrims escaping religious persecution, and seeking the freedom to freely practice their religion, faith has played an integral role in American culture.
But this devotion could be waning, suggests new research from Duke University and University College London (UCL). The study, published in the American Journal of Sociology, finds there’s an ongoing decline in the number of Americans who claim religious affiliations, attend church on a regular basis, and believe in a higher being.
“We haven’t noticed it until recently, I think, because it’s been so slow,” said Mark Chaves of Duke University. “We just didn’t have enough data over a long enough period of time to be able to conclude that it was declining, but it’s now pretty clear that it is.”
What Chaves and co-author David Voas found is that each succeeding U.S. generation is less religious than the previous one.
Consequently, 94 percent of Americans born before 1935 claim a religious affiliation. However, just 71 percent of the generation born after 1975 claims the same. Older Americans, people 65 and older, are also more likely to have no doubt God exists while 45 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 30 hold the same belief. When it comes to attending religious services, 41 percent of the over-70 crowd go to church at least once a month, compared to just 18 percent of people 60 and younger.
The researchers used 1974-2014 data from the General Social Survey, conducted by the University of Chicago, to reach their conclusions. The survey began collecting data in 1972, and includes Americans born as early as 1915, essentially providing a century’s worth of information about Americans and U.S. society.
The researchers looked solely at native-born Americans. They found the patterns were the same for blacks as for whites, and for males and females. However, they didn’t look at different religious groups.
The primary demographic basis for mainstream religion in the United States is traditional families. The decline of the traditional American family is helping drive this lessening involvement in organized religion, according to Chaves.
“Fewer people are married than before, people are getting married later than before, having fewer kids, having kids later in life or not having kids at all,” he said. “All that over the long-term is related to this.”
Intermarriage is also fueling this diminishing devotion. In 2010, about 15 percent of all marriages in the United States were between spouses with a different race or ethnicity from each other, according to the Pew Research Center. The rates were even higher among Hispanics and Asians. Twenty-six percent of Hispanics and 28 percent of Asians “married out”.
Four-in-10 Americans, 39 percent, who’ve married since 2010 wed a spouse from a different religious group. Before 1960, only 19 percent of weddings involved religious intermarriage.
“When a couple is of different religious backgrounds, that makes it less likely that their kids will be religiously active in either of the parents’ religions,” Chaves said. “More religious intermarriage means [parents are] less likely to transmit that religiosity of any sort onto the next generation.”
This new research also negates the theory that Americans are the exception when it comes to the decline of modern religion. Across the board, people in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have become less religious over time.
“It starts to look like we might be on the same trajectory, just having started later and possibly moving more slowly,” Chaves said.
This doesn’t mean religion is dying out in America. Chaves believes the decline will even out over time. One contributing factor to this is that religious families tend to have more children than less religious families.
All of this suggests that, while some Americans are losing their religion, for others, faith has long been, and continues to be, a guiding force in their lives.
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