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Gallup: For the First Time Ever, Fewer Than Half of Americans Belong to a Church, Organized Religion

Joseph Serwach

The Church is growing globally but new Pew data shows the Pandemic grew faith of the “highly religious” Photo by Isabella and Louisa Fischer on Unsplash

Fewer than half of Americans belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque for the first time, according to a new Gallup Pollshowing just 47 percent in 2020 belonging to organized religion.

However, the vast majority of Americans still identify with organized religion even if they don’t belong or attend services.

“The U.S. remains a religious nation, with more than seven in 10 affiliating with some type of organized religion,” Gallup reported. “However, far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship.”

While part of the 2020 decline could prove temporary due to the pandemic, continued Gallup said continued declines “seems inevitable, given the much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger versus older generations of adults.”

Pew data: 42 percent of Americans say “religion is very important”

New Pew Research data, meanwhile, 42 percent of Americans saying “religion is very important” in their lives. Among this group:

  • A full 23 percent of those highly engaged people of faith said their faith has become stronger since the Pandemic.
  • Across every demographic group, only a small percentage in the single digits, 6 percent or lower, reported feeling less faith after the Pandemic.
  • The groups experiencing the greatest increase in faith were members of historically Black churches (43 percent), Evangelicals (37 percent), Protestants (33 percent), Christians (31 percent), Catholics (24 percent), Mainline Protestants (20 percent), Jews (16 percent) and the unaffiliated (6 percent).

Catholic Church continued to grow globally

Almost simultaneously, new data from the Vatican shows the Catholic Church grew globally to 1.39 billion people worldwide by late 2019, with the growth slightly outpacing the growth of the world population (the Church grew 1.12 percent between 2018 and 2019 while the world grew 1.08 percent).

Comparing 2019 numbers with 2013, Vatican Reports said more than 63 percent of North and South American residents are Catholic (making it the most Catholic part of the least represented area of the world was Asia, where just 3 percent are Catholic.

The Church saw its biggest growth in Africa (where numbers grew 3.45 percent) and Asia (where numbers were up 2.91 percent). Europe saw its overall Catholic numbers grow 1.5% increase while North and South America grew just 0.5 percent.

Gallup: U.S. Church membership peaked during World War II

Last year was the first time in 80 years of Gallup polling that the membership levels fell below half of the population. Between 1937 and 2000, the percentage was stable, peaking at 76 percent during World War II and never getting below 68 percent.

But a steady decline began in the 21st century, slipping to 62 percent in 2008–2010, then a steady slide over the past decade to 50 percent in 2018 and 47 percent in 2020.

Fueling the decline? The percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion more than doubled from 8 percent in 1998–2000 to 21 percent since 2018.

The older you are, the more likely you are to be religious: 66 percent of adults born before 1946 belong to a church compared to 58 percent of Baby Boomers (born in 1946–1964), 50 percent of Generation X (1965–1980) and just 36 percent of Millennials (born from 1981–1995).

“The decline in church membership, then, appears largely tied to population change, with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong,” Gallup reported.

The two major trends driving the drop in church membership — more adults with no religious preference and falling rates of church membership among people who do have a religion — are apparent in each of the generations over time.

Since 2000, Gallup reported increases in no church affiliation among every age group: traditionalists jumped from 4 percent to 7 percent, Baby Boomers grew from 7 percent to 13 percent) and Gen Xers went from 11 percent to 20 percent with no religious affiliation.

Among Millennials, 31 percent say they have no religious affiliation (up from 22 percent 10 years ago), while 33 percent of the younger Generation Z has reached adulthood with no religious preference.

Which churches are losing the most members?

Over the past 20 years, Gallup found greater declines in U.S. church membership among:

  • Catholics, dropping from 76 percent to 58 percent.
  • Protestants, dropping from 72 percent to 64 percent.
  • Drops in church membership have been the greatest among residents of the East Coast and Democrats.
  • However, Gallup reported that political independents have lower rates of church membership than Democrats do.
  • Drops in church membership were proportionately smaller among self-identified conservatives, Republicans, married adults, and college graduates, which had the highest church membership rates, along with Southerners and Blacks.

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