How Will Religion Evolve?, asks John Tierney. He notes:
If there is a religious instinct, how do we make sense of the declining church attendance in western Europe? As an agnostic myself, I’ve tended to see the European trend as a harbinger of a general move toward secularism as societies become richer and more educated. But you don’t see that trend in the United States, where church attendance is still robust, and Nicholas told me that he sees a long future for religion: “The extent to which people practice religion in modern states may wax and wane, depending on social circumstances like war or privation, but religion is unlikely to disappear entirely.”
The fake fact is that church attendance is not declining. It is. Compared to secular regions of Europe any region of the United States is very religious, but, the number of Americans who declare No Religion has doubled between 1990 and 2008, from 8% to 15%. Perhaps one might label this the “Silent Secularization,” in contrast to the 1960s when the power of Mainline Protestantism as a cultural arbiter was broken in a very public manner through the Counterculture, along with the subsequent prominence of the Christian Right from the late 1970s on.
I think there are several reasons that the secularization of the of the 1990s, when more than 1 million per year joined the ranks of those with no religious affiliation, has been a silent phenomenon. First, the period from 1980 onward has been one where conservative politics has set the tone, and the Christian Right has been a major power broker. Despite the fact hat 600,000 people a year were joining the ranks of those with no religion in the 2000s, the president was a conservative Protestant, and Congress was dominated by figures who acknowledged the legitimacy of the Religious Right (though I tend to lean toward the proposition that economic conservatives still control the Republican party, or did, for most of this period).
Second, the secularization of the 1990s, in contrast to the 1960s, was relatively low key and banal. It wasn’t flashy. It probably mostly involved nominal Christians who finally severed their vestigial ties to religion (the American Religious Identification Survey 2008 suggests that nominal white Catholics in particular defected in massive numbers). With the strong skew to the youth, these were probably Gen-Xers who decided to go hiking or jamming with their garage band on Sundays, but maintaining normal jobs and lives. By contrast, the growth of the megachurch made much better copy. In many ways conservative Protestants are the modern Counterculture, going against the dominant currents of the society (e.g., the “True Love Waits” movement). But interestingly, despite growing at the expense of Mainline Protestants, Evangelical Protestants are not making Protestantism more theologically conservative.
In any case, contrary to John Tierney’s assumption, church attendance has been declining. GSS variables ATTEND and YEAR show the trend. It’s all a function of the doubling of those with “No Religion” though. If you limit the sample to Protestants & Catholics, there’s little change over the decades….