DU experts weigh in on the state of religion in America
America’s religious landscape is shifting. Large numbers of Americans have left the most prevalent religion in the U.S., Christianity, to join the growing ranks of those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or religious “nones,” according to the Pew Research Center.
In 2020, Pew Research reported that 64% of Americans identify as Christian, down from 90% in 1972. This reflects a growing trend in religious disaffiliation over the past few decades.
While Christianity is in decline, other religious affiliations have grown, partly due to immigration. Currently, 6% of the U.S. population adheres to other religions, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, but that number is expected to grow. Atheists, agnostics and religious “nones” or “nothing in particular” now represent 30% of the population.
At the same time, many people are participating in online or individual religious practice rather than attending houses of worship. In fact, according to a 2020 Gallup survey, Americans’ membership in houses of worship dropped below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade study.
The story of religion in America is multifaceted and complex. To learn more, we reached out to DU’s community of expert faculty and alumni in religious studies, social work, psychology and Judaic studies about what they’re observing and their theories on what is contributing to these changes.
Professor Daniel McIntosh
Daniel McIntosh is a professor in the Department of Psychology who studies religion. He believes that the U.S. is following the path taken by a more secular Western Europe.
“The U.S. has often been an outlier among Western industrialized countries in terms of how unusually religious we’ve been, compared with trends in other countries,” says McIntosh. “So, one way of looking at it is that we are following the pattern that other Western, industrial, educated democracies have been following.” McIntosh adds that the roots of disaffiliation in the U.S. can be found in social movements in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I think the story in the U.S. starts with all the changes that happened … with the baby boomers and the hippies and the anti-Vietnam movement, and the social changes that were occurring from the civil rights movement to the pill, to gay and lesbian awareness and rights movements,” he says. “All of that coalescing around that time began to raise some questions.”
Although Christian churches in the 1950s may have seemed homogeneous, they weren’t. Within those organizations, there was a lot of diversity among a lot of issues, he adds.
“Part of what happened in the 60s and 70s is that you begin to have this questioning of those organizations. Some of these issues began to be talked about more openly than perhaps they had been. And that led to some rejection of organizations in general,” McIntosh says.
Churches began to be aligned, to different degrees, with some of the political parties and movements. Polarization began to happen, and people began leaving because they no longer felt comfortable with the realignment.
But what happened over 50 years ago doesn’t explain the growing disaffiliation in recent decades. McIntosh describes it as a snowball effect within what Pew calls “intergenerational transmission,” or the passing of religious identity (or lack thereof) from parents to children.
“I think it’s a self-accelerating process,” he says.
“People left the church. Now you have a set of people who are religious ‘dones.’ They were raised in a religious organization, but they’ve left. They begin having kids, and their kids are ‘nones,’ they never were part of [a religious organization], and that begins to accelerate.”
Assistant Professor Marquisha Lawrence Scott
Marquisha Lawrence Scott is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Social Work. Her work focuses on religious congregations and other community-based organizations and how they impact community outcomes.
Scott also has theological training, with a master’s degree in divinity. She studies both theological and social perspectives and how the two relate to each other. Scott says there is a growing trend in congregations to address social justice issues. For example, she says, many congregations are now focused on climate change. “Congregations feel like there’s a theological requirement—coming from a Christian perspective—this kind of ‘stewards of the earth’ idea.”
In a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey released earlier this year, seven in 10 churchgoers (71%) agreed that providing a faith perspective on pressing social concerns is an important part of a church’s role. However, less than half (45%) agreed with the statement that “congregations should get involved in social issues, even if that means having challenging conversations about politics.”
Nonetheless, Scott finds that many aging congregations are being called to social justice when, to them, churches are essentially social spaces. “They’re not justice spaces. They grew up in these traditions for the social connection, for the community,” she says. But many young people, on the other hand, think congregations should be addressing social justice issues.
“Young people are saying all these years, we’ve been giving money, we’ve been giving to charity, but nothing has really changed in our community.”
This attitude appears to be supported by the PRRI survey, which found four in 10 (38%) of Americans aged 18-29 are religiously unaffiliated. Scott says what she sees, in general, is younger Americans are less trusting of institutions and more focused on social outcomes.
“If people don’t trust that religious congregations are authentic and live their values, they won’t go into those spaces,” she says.
But that doesn’t mean they are less moral, Scott says.“I see them being highly motivated and focused on how to care for folks and how to ensure that our words match actions.”
Rabbi Asher Knight, Alumnus
Asher Knight (BA ’01) is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina. He believes there is a trend towards “meaning making,” and says that people want to add depth and meaning to their lives.
“We’re seeing it in a variety of ways. People want their relationships to add substance. They seek meaningful relationships with the clergy. They desire to be seen, known and heard for who they truly are,” he says.
“People may shy away from specific aspects of religious affiliation, yet they desire to cultivate personal growth and transformation, enliven major life events and select holidays with vibrant celebrations, forge meaningful connections, and amplify life’s joys while receiving support through its challenges,” Knight adds. “And they want to be comfortable expressing doubts, which is embraced within our community.”
Knight has also seen a national decrease in synagogue participation over the years, although his congregation continues to grow. He says that faith organizations that are institutionally focused need to be more people focused to attract members. His synagogue, for example, has been doing this by developing smaller groups within the large congregation.
“We count around a thousand households as part of our community, and we’ve noticed that individuals who were raised Jewish but have been away from synagogue life for a while often feel apprehensive about stepping through our doors,” he says. “There is a strong yearning for a sense of community—where people can learn, pray and enjoy life together. We have put significant effort into making our large congregation feel intimate by helping individuals discover their own tribe within the community.”
Knight acknowledges that faith institutions in the U.S. tend to skew older, not because the institutions themselves are old, but because the people who can either afford or have the time to be involved are often older.
“Many Americans are stretched thin financially,” says Knight. “As they work harder for less income, their ability to engage with social and faith institutions is often compromised.”
He’s concerned that if faith institutions shrink, so will support for social services.
“In our county a significant portion of essential social services relies on the support of nonprofits and faith organizations,” he adds. “If these institutions falter due to lack of support, the repercussions for the broader society could be severe.”
Associate Professor Andrea Stanton
While attendance at houses of worship has decreased generally, the picture looks somewhat different for Muslims. According to a recent U.S. mosque survey, the percentage of Muslims who attended mosque for Eid prayers following Ramadan increased 16% between 2010 and 2020, and the number of mosques increased 31% during that time. This represents a steady growth in the Muslim population due to immigration and birth rates, according to the survey.
Andrea Stanton, associate professor of Islamic studies in the Department of Religious Studies, sees the growing attendance at mosques as a reflection of the American tradition of belonging to a congregation.
“In most parts of the historical Muslim world and Muslim-majority world, mosques are not the nucleus of religious communities,” says Stanton. “People tend to pray in the one near them because it’s convenient. Also, in some Muslim communities, women rarely went to mosques and instead prayed at home, meaning that only half the community might attend a mosque.”
The American concept of congregation, she says, likely comes from British history. “A house of worship isn’t just a place you go and pray, it’s also a place you donate money to, volunteer at and affiliate with. People talk about ‘belonging.’ That’s a congregation. What that’s meant for most minority religious traditions is when they come to the U.S. and continue their religious practices, people start to become part of congregations.”
Stanton points to earlier Muslim immigrant communities in the U.S. where people would get married at a mosque. “That’s not a Muslim practice. Historically, Muslims don’t get married in mosque,” she says. But a mosque in the U.S. would have a social hall, so that’s where American Muslims would celebrate a wedding.
Disaffiliating from a religious organization can have a social impact, says Stanton, because of the way houses of worship have been communities in the U.S. But it doesn’t mean that people are less religious.
During COVID, some people stopped going to services entirely, while others kept up with services online, says Stanton. Many have yet to return to a physical house of worship.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean religious disengagement, but what it might mean is that somebody who is interested in discovering or doing scriptural study or developing more of a prayer habit might be doing that by themselves with an app now, and maybe they’re engaging with people online,” says Stanton, who also studies technology and online religion.
“The religious connection may be there,” she adds. “But the social connection, the community connection isn’t there as much.”
Losing religion, losing social connection
That loss of social connection is cause for concern, according to U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. In his May 2023 report entitled, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” Murthy sounded the alarm, calling social connection “a critical and underappreciated contributor to individual and population health, community safety, resilience and prosperity.”
The report notes that, in addition to a drop in religious participation, participation in other organizations that have been important pillars of community, such as clubs and labor unions, has also declined. “Far too many Americans lack social connection in one or more ways, compromising these benefits and leading to poor health and other negative outcomes,” Murthy says.
In 2018, only 16% of Americans reported that they felt very attached to their local community, according to the report. In response to this trend, the University of Denver has made wellness and connection a key element of the 4D experience, a holistic model for student learning and development. In addition to advancing intellectual growth, pursuing careers and lives of purpose, and exploring character, 4D promotes well-being in which students learn how to achieve social, emotional, physical and spiritual wellness, as well as develop meaningful connections to others.
The DU experts we spoke to agree that faith-based institutions and religious groups—both big and small, in person or virtual—can play an important role in the social infrastructure of a community. The participants and why and how they participate may be shifting, but for those who do, religious spaces offer a way to alleviate isolation, serve their communities and find meaning and purpose in their lives.
Rabbi Knight sums up the importance of religious community this way: “It’s more than a community—it’s the living embodiment of our shared values. It’s where we not only care and have fun with each other, but also unite in prayer, learning and mutual support. It’s where our beliefs take form in the world, strengthening each of us individually and all of us collectively.”