RALEIGH, N.C. -- Despite the prominence of religious believers in politics and culture, America has shrinking congregations, growing dissatisfaction with religious leaders and more people who do not think about faith, according to a new study by a Duke University expert.
In "American Religion: Contemporary Trends," author Mark Chaves argues that over the last generation or so, religious belief in the U.S. has experienced a "softening" that effects everything from whether people go to worship services regularly to whom they marry. Far more people are willing to say they don't belong to any religious tradition today than in the past, and signs of religious vitality may be camouflaging stagnation or decline.
"Reasonable people can disagree over whether the big picture story is one of essential stability or whether it's one of slow decline," said Chaves. "Unambiguously, though, there's no increase."
Chaves, who directs the National Congregations Study, used data from that research and from four decades' worth of General Social Survey results to draw what he aims to be an overview of contemporary American religion. The study will be published this week.
Today, as many as 20 percent of all Americans say they don't belong to any religious group, Chaves found, compared with around 3 percent in the 1950s. Yet, those people aren't necessarily atheists, agnostics or others. Instead, about 92 percent of Americans still profess belief in God, they just don't use religion as part of their identity.
"It used to be that even the most marginally active people wouldn't say they have no religion, they'd say `I'm Catholic' or `I'm Baptist' or `I'm Methodist' or whatever," Chaves said. "That's not the case today."
Even signs of robust religious faith may not be what they appear, Chaves found. The strength of religious conservatives in politics, for example, has coincided with a growing disillusionment about faith's role in the public square. Chaves found that between 1991 and 2008, the percentage of Americans who strongly agreed that religious leaders should stay out of politics rose from 20 percent to 44 percent.
At the same time, those who remain devout have become more conservative. In the mid-1970s, knowing that someone attended church regularly wouldn't reveal much about their political leanings; today, regular churchgoers are far more likely to be Republicans than Democrats.
"It's not random who's leaving churches," said Bradley Wright, a University of Connecticut sociologist who studies American Christianity and wrote the 2010 book "Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You've Been Told."
"As Christians affiliated more through the Republican Party, liberal, marginal churchgoers became offended and left," she said.
The notion of decline misses important developments like the enthusiastic devotion of Christian immigrants, argues Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
"Much of our immigration is coming from countries where Christianity is blossoming," he said. "I think God's doing some great things in African-American churches and among Hispanic immigrants."
Anderson thinks the change is better described as a shift than a decline, as people become more willing to leave the denominations or faiths in which they were raised and look elsewhere for spiritual nourishment.
Wright also believes that a decline might be overstating the case, and says polarization is a better description. He recently plotted survey data over the last 25 years recording what Americans say about the importance of religion in their lives. Those who say it's extremely important have grown slightly, along with those who say it's not at all important. But the number of people who said it was "somewhat" important dropped from 36 percent to 22 percent in about 20 years.
"Forty or 50 years ago, it was almost a form of deviance not to be religious," he said. "When you take away that external form of motivation, people either drop away or they find their own kind of motivation."
Chaves agrees, saying churches are likelier today to consist largely of a "hard core" of believers, and to have fewer casual or lukewarm members that used to swell the ranks.
"That's what's changed," he said. "Certainly as a percentage of their time, it's less important than it was."
These trends developed slowly over decades, Chaves said, and he doesn't think they can be reversed by ramped-up evangelism or other conscious decisions by religious groups. The main force may be demographic, since the data show that the households most likely to be devout consist of two parents and children. As fewer people have children and more couples split up, religious institutions see their numbers dwindle.
"Religious leaders know this," Chaves said. "That's why they look for ways to attract single people and people without kids. But it's hard, because on the whole, mainstream religion is kind of geared toward families."
The study wasn't all bad for religious groups, though. Older people are more likely to be religious than the young, and America is on the cusp of having the largest elderly population in its history, Chaves said.
Immigrants to the U.S. also tend to be active religious believers, and birth rates may also favor the faithful. Devout families usually have more children than the kinds of non-traditional arrangements contributing to the demographic drain on religions, Wright said. Finally, there's an extraordinary amount of good will toward religious faith in the U.S., especially in contrast with other Western countries.
"It's not like there's a lot of hostility toward religion in the United States," Chaves said. "It's just that there's been a softening of religiosity."