The religiosity of Americans seems to have diminished despite the national crisis wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent poll from Gallup.
According to the poll, an average of 48 percent of Americans said in 2020 that religion “is very important” in their lives. Gallup informed that this statistic is the lowest on record since it began recording it in 1952. Back then, 75 percent of Americans rated religion as a “very important” part of their lives.
While the Gallup report states the importance of religion has fluctuated over time, such fluctuations peaked at 64 percent in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and 65 percent in 2002, a year after the attacks. The peaks seemed to be related to the crisis caused by the attacks. But this last year, religiosity took a dive despite the pandemic.
In 2020, 33 percent of Americans also considered that the influence of religion has increased on American Society, compared to just 19 percent in 2019. But this statistic contrasts sharply with the personal attendance in a church, synagogue or mosque in the seven days prior to the poll. Only 30 percent of Americans said they had visited a religious place of worship, at least seven days before answering the poll. In 2019, the number of church-going Americans was 34 percent.
Virtual Worship Attendance Also Down
Gallup estimates the decline could be a direct consequence “of the pandemic on Americans’ ability to physically attend houses of worship due to closures and capacity limitations.” But as virtual worship services became a new way of participating in religious services, Gallup also polled Americans on whether they attended “in person or remotely.” The poll revealed that 27 percent and 28 percent of those attending a religious service in April and May 2020, respectively, did so remotely, and less than 5 percent attended in person.
On a related matter, membership to a specific house of worship continued to decrease in 2020, reaching an all-time low of 47 percent of Americans belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque. That is 3 percent less when compared to 2018, and 23 percent less when compared to 1999.
According to the analytics and advisory company, the decline in religious membership is mainly due to an increase in the lack of religious affiliation and generational differences.
The decline in church membership is being attributed by Gallup to “the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference.” According to the poll, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8 percent (1998-2000) to 21 percent (2018-2000).
Gallup argues that “as would be expected, Americans without a religious preference are highly unlikely to belong to a church, synagogue or mosque.”
Furthermore, Gallup considers church membership to be correlated with age, with older adults more likely to be members of a specific house of worship than the younger generations (baby boomers, generation Xers and millennials). Nevertheless, Gallup admits population replacement “doesn’t fully explain the decline in church membership,” since adults in older generations have been decreasing their church memberships for the last two decades. The number of Americans without a religious affiliation has almost doubled in each generation.
The decline in church membership includes not only those without a religious affiliation but also those who do have one in each of the generations polled. According to Gallup, these decreasing church memberships range between six and eight percentage points over the last 20 years for traditionalists, baby boomers and generation Xers who identified themselves with a specific religious belief. In the case of millennials, church membership dropped from 63 percent to 50 percent in the last 10 years.
Catholics are identified as the religious group experiencing the most significant loss in membership, dropping from 76 percent to 58 percent, or 18 percent fewer Catholics. On the other hand, among Protestants, the loss was nine percentage points, from 73 percent to 64 percent.
Despite dwindling attendance to the different houses of worship throughout the United States and the impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the American people, the importance religion has in their lives remains unfazed, albeit it being at an all-time low. The challenge religious leaders must face now is to find or devise a way to attract those who do affiliate to a specific religion to become active church members.