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April 17, 2019Culture, Research

Is Religious Decline Inevitable in the United States?

Current statistics about the secularization of American may come as a surprise.
Is Religious Decline Inevitable in the United States?
Image: Pixabay/matthiasboeckel

If you take a course in the sociology of religion at any college or university, the professor will inevitably spend some time on what is known as secularization theory. This theory posits that as societies become more economically prosperous and obtain higher levels of education, the inevitable result is a movement away from organized religion and toward secularization.

The famous psychiatrist Sigmund Freud was fond of comparing religion to a child’s fairy tale and believed that as society becomes more focused on reason, it will drift away from religious faith. Karl Marx contended that religion was used as a tool to keep the masses from understanding how exploited they were by the ruling class.

Marx famously wrote that religion was “the opium of the people.” The logical conclusion of secularization theory is that economic and educational progress is a fact of modern civilization and therefore the inevitable outcome is a casting off of religious beliefs.

The graph that is often offered to bolster this claim looks strikingly similar to the one below. The horizontal axis provides a good proxy for economic prosperity (gross national product per capita), while the vertical axis represents the overall level of religiosity in a nation.

The conclusion from this graph is clear: the more economic prosperity a nation enjoys, the fewer citizens of that country say that religion is very important. There are a few outliers, however. China is in the bottom left portion of the graph, which means that based on the country’s economic output it should be more religious than it currently is, with the same occurring in Hungary.

Obviously, both of those countries have a history that is closely associated with communism, which is the likely cause of their low levels of religiosity. On the other hand, the United States is clearly an outlier on this graph. It ranks as the most economically prosperous country in the dataset, but if it were going to be in the middle of the trend line, the overall level of religiosity should be very close to zero.

Instead, just over half of Americans think that religion is very important. The United States clearly bucks the trend of secularization when looked at from this angle.

There are two possible thoughts that emerge from this. One is that secularization is coming to the United States, it’s just moving a little slower. The other is that somehow the U.S. is different and is the exception to secularization. Recent data on America’s religious behaviors can help us understand what is really occurring.

Turning to surveys of Americans can be helpful in understanding the relationship between education and religiosity. The bar graph below displays the percentage of each educational group that identifies as a religious “none” (atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular).

Educational attainment serves as a very good proxy for economic prosperity and provides a solid test of secularization theory. Note that each of the six waves of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study contain between 30,000 and 65,000 respondents.

The results are unambiguous: those with the least amount of education are consistently the most likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated. The far right bar in the graph, indicating those with a graduate level education are almost always the group that is the most likely to be religiously affiliated.

If one would like to argue that education is related to secularization, there is no evidence to support that conclusion to be found here.

However, there is a more specific way to approach this problem. The above graph lumps the entire sample into six education categories with little regard for whether they obtained their high school diploma in 1968 to 2008.

If secularization was a constantly accelerating process, we would expect to see younger people with graduate degrees unaffiliate at higher rates than their older counterparts with high levels of education. In order to test this, I broke the CCES 2018 sample into birth cohorts, which are created based on five year intervals.

For instance, I placed everyone born between 1940 and 1944 into the same cohort. I then calculated the share of each educational level who had no religious affiliation for all fourteen birth cohorts in the sample.

For this visualization, an upward sloping line would provide support for secularization, while a downward sloping line would indicate that secularization is not occurring. For the top row of cohorts, ranging from 1930 to 1949, there is some evidence of secularization, as those with more education are more likely to be unaffiliated.

The second row, however, tells a different story: the lines are flat. This indicates there is no relationship between education and religious disaffiliation for those born between 1950 and 1969. The last six cohorts (those born between 1970 and 2000), show lines that consistently sloping downwards. The results of this graph indicate that, for those between the ages of 18 and 49, the more education one obtains the more likely they are to affiliate with a religious tradition.

Taken together, the results from this sample tell a simple story: secularization is apparent for older generations of Americans, but for those born after 1950 there is no evidence that education leads to a decline in religious affiliation.

So, why is this happening? The sociologist Philip Schwadel provides some insight in a paper he published in 2014.

First, Schwadel notes that obtaining a higher education has become ubiquitous in modern American society. While only certain types of people would go on to college in previous years, a college education is an obtainable reality for people from all types of socio-economic, racial, and religious backgrounds. That may mute the self-selection effect that was occurring in prior generations.

In addition, Schwadel argues that the well-educated are often early adopters of cultural change, which meant a move toward religious disaffiliation in the 1970s and 80s. Subsequently, those behaviors then trickle down to the rest of the population who began to disaffiliate from religion as well. Therefore, what may be occurring in the younger cohorts is the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction, with the highly educated portion of the population returning to religion.

To use an oft-repeated phrase, “The kids are alright.” The perception that younger Americans are becoming more educated and therefore less religious finds no empirical support in this data.

In fact, a bigger worry may be young adults who don’t pursue education beyond high school, as many of them are espousing the lowest levels of church attendance of any birth cohort. If one thinks that the path of the United States looks like Sweden, where 60% of adults have no religious affiliation, that seems unlikely.

In addition, this should alleviate some of the concerns that parents have when they send their Christian teenagers off to a secular college or university. The evidence is clear: among their generation, more education leads to higher levels of church attendance and a lower likelihood of becoming religiously disaffiliated. There is hope for religion in America, yet.

Dr. Ryan Burge is a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. He teaches in a variety of areas, including American institutions, public administration, and international relations. His research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior, especially in the American cont

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Is Religious Decline Inevitable in the United States?