Religion Is Dying? Don’t Believe It

Many of the ‘Nones’ aren’t secular; they belong to minority faiths. The problem is how to count them.


By Byron R. Johnson and Jeff Levin, Opinion, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ)

July 28, 2022


Reports of religion’s decline in America have been exaggerated. You’ve heard the story: Churchgoers are dwindling in number while “Nones”—those who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation—are multiplying as people abandon their faith and join the ranks of atheists and agnostics. Headlines declare that the U.S. is secularizing along the lines of Europe. From Britain’s Daily Mail in 2013: “Religion could disappear by 2041 because people will have replaced God with possessions, claims leading psychologist.”


These conclusions are based on analyses that are so flawed as to be close to worthless. In a new study with our colleagues Matt Bradshaw and Rodney Stark, we seek to set the record straight…


… The religious landscape in the U.S. is changing but not in the ways that draw headlines. Hundreds of new denominations have quietly appeared, as have thousands of church plants (new congregations) and numerous non-Christian religious imports. These more than make up for losses from mainline Protestant denominations, which are indeed in free fall and have been for decades. But the decline of established institutions is easier to track than the formation and growth of new ones….


… Many are evangelical and Pentecostal churches, especially Latino and African-American congregations, as well as nondenominational churches and megachurches, many with multiple campuses. This means that instead of 344,894 congregations (based on the most recent U.S. Religious Census data), there may be as many as 500,000 houses of worship in the U.S. Omitted are not only thousands of small congregations but huge ones such as Lakewood Church in Houston (with weekly attendance of 45,000), Gateway Church in the Dallas area (100,000), North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga. (40,000), Life Church in Edmund, Okla. (30,000), and Christ’s Church of the Valley in Phoenix (32,000).


All of this helps explain why the proportion of Nones has increased sharply—from 15% in 2007 to 30% in 2021—even though the proportion of atheists in the U.S. has held steady at 3% to 4% for more than 80 years. And there are reasons to question the assumption that even truly unaffiliated Nones aren’t religious. Our study looked closely at their actual practices and beliefs…


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