St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church


St. Bart's Blog

How Religion is Changing in America, Part 1

Posted by The Rev. William Zettinger on

And What Can We Do About It?

Nearly a century after German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche first proclaimed “God is dead,” TIME magazine released a controversial cover on its April 8, 1966 edition with the related provocative question: “Is God dead?”

Both Nietzsche and TIME were exploring the prominence of God in people’s lives, and whether religiosity was on the decline in America. Fifty years later, religion experts are still grappling with that question, including me, though the context has drastically changed.
By many measures, religious practice and affiliation has greatly declined in the United States in the last 50 years. Yet spirituality, religion’s free-spirited sibling, appears to be as strong - if not stronger - than ever.

Here’s a look at some of the ways religious practice and beliefs have changed in the U.S. over the last 50 years, and the trends that may continue to evolve:

Belief in God has wavered.
In 1966, some 98 percent of Americans said they believed in God. When Gallup and Pew Research surveyed Americans in 2016, the number had dropped to 84 percent and 88 percent respectively. Among the youngest adults surveyed by Pew, those born between 1990 and 1996, the share of believers was just 79 percent.

Some researchers argue that the number has decreased simply because Americans are more comfortable now than they were in the 1960s admitting that they don’t believe in God. Maybe so. But we also hear that when speaking about a loving God, the God of the Hebrew Bible and God's wrath does not stack up. How can God be loving and be so embedded in the killing of the Gentiles in the land of the Israelites. A fair but difficult question our Wednesday morning study class of more than 60 folks often struggles with.

Christianity has declined.
In 1948, Gallup found that about 91 percent of Americans identified as Christian. That number took a big dip in subsequent decades and continues to decline in recent years. From 2007 to 2016, the percentage of Americans who identified as Christian fell from 78.4 percent to 70.0 percent.

A new “religious” group has emerged.
Nearly one in three Americans under 35 today are religiously unaffiliated, meaning they do not identify with any formal religious group. As a whole, these “nones” comprise the second largest religious group in the U.S. behind evangelical Protestants.

Spirituality has taken center stage.
The term “spiritual but not religious” has emerged in recent years to describe how more and more Americans identify. Yes, religious affiliation has declined, but feelings of spiritual peace and well-being and wonder about the universe have significantly increased in the last decade across religious and nonreligious groups. Even among the unaffiliated and those who say religion isn’t particularly important to them. Spiritual sentiment is strong and growing. More than half of atheists say they regularly feel a sense of awe and wonder. Between 2007 and 2016, the percentage of atheists who said they felt a deep sense of wonder about the universe on a weekly basis rose a full 18 points from 37 percent to 55 percent. Quantum physics and our understanding of the cosmos plays a big role in these views.

Non-Christian faiths have grown.
Islam, Hinduism and a number of other non-Christian faiths have risen in the U.S. in recent years. Pew Research predicts that by 2050, Muslims will surpass Jews as the second largest organized religious group after Christians. Hindus are also projected to rise from 0.7 percent of the U.S. population to 1.2 percent in 2050.

The spirituality marketplace had exploded.
From spiritual gurus, to self-help books, to wellness retreats, the market for spirituality in the U.S. has perhaps never been so robust. The self-help industry, which often include alternative modes of spirituality along with motivational books and life coaching, brings in $13 billion a year in the form of books, retreats, classes and more. With more than 20 million practitioners in the U.S., meditation and mindfulness were quick to follow and gain fans among major companies like Google, General Mills, Aetna and Goldman Sachs.

The New Atheists became a religion unto themselves.
Non-believers have always been part of the American demographic, but atheists and humanists have perhaps never been as organized, prominent and vocal as they are today. Though many of the largest organizations - American Atheists, American Humanist Association, and Freedom from Religion Foundation - were established decades ago, the New Atheists emerged in the 2000s with a righteous, anti-religious fervor. Spearheaded by prominent British atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, as well as American atheist Sam Harris, the New Atheists have gained a large following eager to read their books, watch their debates and attend their conventions.

So what must change?
At the heart of America's faith evolution is what religion journalist Krista Tippett calls a “proliferation of ways to engage in spiritual practice.” Yes, you’ll still find Bibles in hotel rooms ,(although less than half now do) but you’ll also see the Quran, yoga and meditation rooms in some airports and Muslim prayer spaces on many college campuses. What it means to be spiritual — and how that looks in practice — is rapidly changing and diversifying. But rather than diminishing Americans’ faith, this transformation is also crystallizing certain core values, like service, community and connection to something greater than ourselves.

The changes that are taking place provides a great opportunity for the Episcopal Church and St Barts. We have a beautiful liturgy that can lift peoples hearts. Just consider our Celtic Service on Saturday night. We offer a safe place for our Pre-School and Sunday School kids. We are building a school in Haiti. Everyone is welcome there.

I believe we are on the right track to address the changes we see in religiosity in the nation. We may not always get it right, but we are not afraid to try on new things and to listen. I believe that is a good first step. In the following months, I will offer more food for thought on building a positive case for the historical Christianity and Jesus!