Finding Truth in the Face of Downward Trends

Fewer Americans Identify as Christian, but the Reasons for Faith Endure

Many of us have heard or read about the rapid secularization of Western societies. Religion in Europe seems to have been reduced to relic, relegated to one’s private life with no real claims on the individual. Various cultural critics believe the United States to be on a similar track. With government expansion, ideological propaganda via social media, and a volatile political landscape, the country appears to be moving away from organized religion and into a more secular, tribalized condition. But what are the actual numbers, and are we truly as unchurched as we might suppose?

A new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center offers some clarifying statistics. The number of self-identifying Christians in the United States has indeed dropped in the past decade. According to the survey, although they still comprise the majority of the populace: "their share of the adult population is 12 points lower in 2021 than it was in 2011."

Around three in ten American adults now describe themselves as “nones” – people who belong to no particular faith tradition but instead espouse some sort of agnosticism or atheism. Perhaps this segment of the population could be described as practicing a social ethic vaguely consistent with Christian teaching, but it is fundamentally unmoored from any real belief in a cosmic deity. As some have noted, they want the “kingdom without the King.”

Of course, the term “Christian” describes a quite broad swath of people, so the survey was careful to investigate religious decline along denominational lines. Interestingly, the decline is concentrated among Protestants:

The Protestant share of the population is down 4 percentage points over the last five years and has dropped 10 points in 10 years.

Catholic observance seems to have remained steady:

As of 2021, 21% of U.S. adults describe themselves as Catholic, identical to the Catholic share of the population in 2014.

I haven’t researched the specific reasons why Protestant observance is on the decline in the U.S., but I would wager that the political divisions over the last five years have contributed greatly. This seems especially true in American evangelicalism, which, as the survey noted, comprises 60 percent of American Protestants. The 2016 presidential election caused a genuine crisis among evangelicals, and it doesn’t seem that the ensuing damages have been at all redressed five years later. The survey found that:

overall, both evangelical and non-evangelical Protestants have seen their shares of the population decline as the percentage of U.S. adults who identify with Protestantism has dropped.

In addition to denominational decline, the survey discovered that fewer Americans are praying daily:

Today, fewer than half of U.S. adults (45%) say they pray on a daily basis. By contrast, nearly six-in-ten (58%) reported praying daily in the 2007 Religious Landscape Study, as did 55% in the 2014 Landscape Study.

In his latest book, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles, J.P. Moreland discusses how even American Christians are quite informed by a secular, materialistic worldview, and that such a bleak outlook has slowly eroded the religious worldview that most Americans observed, at least nominally, a century ago.

These statistics give us information, but they don’t give us the why. In her book Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes, Nancy Pearcey notes that many young people in the U.S. are leaving church because they felt their pastors and leaders failed to answer their tough questions about Christianity. They were raised with a “blind faith,” and once they got to college, they didn’t have the training or resources they needed to intellectually justify their beliefs.

For me, this contributed to my own “existential crisis,” which I went through during my sophomore year at Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts school in Chicago. While I wanted to follow Jesus, I found myself doubting his existence, the historicity of the Resurrection, and whether human beings were spiritual beings. For a few agonizing months, I struggled to function on a college campus where all these things were taken for granted. It was truly only in connecting emotionally with new friends, learning from excellent professors, and reading a ton of material on Christianity that my heart started to heal and my faith in God was restored. Looking back, I realize now how much of my doubts were emotional in nature, stemming from a lack of assurance that I was truly “saved.” However, discovering the treasures of historic Christianity gave me more intellectual confidence in the faith.

Despite the downward trends of religious observance in the United States, perhaps this can be an occasion for Christians to examine what they believe more closely, and trade in a nominal belief system for a real dependence on God and the church. Maybe the decline of “cultural Christianity” will yield a more authentic and committed community of believers willing to be steadfast in an increasingly decadent society.

See also the following articles related to reasons for faith:

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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