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Churchgoing and faith in God plummets to new low

By Sarah May
|
December 25, 2022

Amid the height of the Christmas season, recent polling reveals that church attendance as well as membership – and even a basic belief in God – all dropped sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating existing societal trends away from traditional, organized religious observance, as The Hill reports.

According to researchers, those referred to as “nones,” i.e., Americans who claim to embrace no particular religion whatsoever, comprise at least one-fifth of the population, a dramatic shift from decades past.

Staggering statistics

Gallup poll figures indicate that the percentage of Americans with membership in a particular church dropped under 50% in 2020, marking an all-time low, with those declaring themselves nonbelievers also reaching record levels, according to The Hill.

Between the 1940s and the 1990s, church membership was something roughly 7 out of 10 Americans claimed, but from 2000 and beyond, a dramatic decline has been observed.

Despite their increasing share of the American populace, experts emphasize that “nones” are not necessarily the same as nonbelievers, even though the latter category has also reached record levels.

David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame explained, “Somebody who has no religious affiliation, they may well value religion. And they may well believe in God.”

Despite the sharp drop in membership numbers – to around 10% of the population – for traditional, distinctly identifiable “mainline” Protestant denominations such as Lutheran, Baptist, and Methodist churches, there has, however, been sizable growth among nondenominational, free-form congregations, a trend that seems to track with Campbell's assertion.

Pandemic acceleration

Patterns in religious engagement that were already emerging prior to the COVID-19 pandemic underwent a dramatic acceleration from March of 2020 onward, as ABC News has reported, perhaps making this particular societal realignment much more evident.

The network performed an analysis of churches spanning over 3,000 counties across the country and found that in-person attendance at religious services plummeted by 45% once infection precautions took hold over almost every aspect of life.

Many parishoners turned to virtual church attendance during the pandemic, something that certainly filled the gap during an unprecedented crisis, but which many church leaders do not feel is a sustainable substitute for the spiritual nourishment so many seek.

A lack of personal interaction inside church buildings tends to result in lower – and critical – financial contributions and produces decreased morale among congregation members. As ABC News noted, and despite most churches having reopened long ago, the shift that occurred during the pandemic appears to have wrought lingering consequences.

“People are not getting together much, generally speaking. Not just in church, but in the village. People are staying home. They're on their cellphones. They're on the Internet,” lamented Thomas Groome, a Boston College professor of theology and religious education.

Broader societal recalibration

The drift away from organized religion can also be assessed through a political lens, and as The Hill notes, prior generations of Americans viewed belief in God as virtually inextricable from their national identity in a way many no longer do.

“To be a communist was to be an atheist, and to be an American was to be a Christian, and a person of faith,” suggested political science professor Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University.

By the 1990s, religious affiliation began to take on different partisan political implications when Republican leaders touted links between Christianity and patriotism, sparking backlash and perhaps even hostility from the left toward the concept of churchgoing.

Pew research suggests, as The Hill notes, that agnostic Americans are three times more likely to self-identify as Democrats, while only 15% of self-described atheists consider themselves to be Republicans, underscoring the notion that political affiliation may be playing an outsized role in observed declines in religious participation, though notably, college-educated Americans are far more likely to hold church membership than those without degrees.

America not alone

The shifts in religious affiliation and identification observed in the United States are being replicated in other parts of the world. The BBC recently reported that according to data from the U.K.'s Office for National Statistics, for the first time in history, fewer than half of those living in England and Wales consider themselves to be Christian.

In the wake of that news, The Most Rev. Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, said resolutely, “It's not a great surprise that the census shows fewer people in this country identifying as Christian than in the past, but it still throws down a challenge to us not only to trust that God will build his kingdom on Earth but also to play our part in making Christ known.”