(The Hill) — Only half of Americans now say they are sure God exists.
That finding, from the closely watched General Social Survey, stands out among several nuggets of new data about religion in America.
Not quite 50 percent of Americans say they have no doubt about the existence of God, according to the 2022 survey, released Wednesday by NORC, the University of Chicago research organization. As recently as 2008, the share of sure-believers topped 60 percent.
Thirty-four percent of Americans never go to church, NORC found, the highest figure recorded in five decades of surveys.
Another new report, from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), said that 27 percent of Americans claimed no religion in 2022, up from 19 percent in 2012 and 16 percent in 2006.
The PRRI report tracks a historic decline in the nation’s Christian population, especially among white people. The share of Americans who identify as white evangelical Protestants has dwindled from 23 percent to 14 percent since 2006. The share of mainline white Protestants has fallen from 18 percent to 14 percent. White Catholics have declined from 16 percent of the population to 13 percent.
That is not to say Americans are not spiritual. Nearly three-quarters of people believe in life after death, NORC data show. That number has remained relatively stable over the decades.
Only 7 percent of people do not believe in God.
“Belief is very stubborn in America today,” said Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University who studies faith.
Church membership, church attendance and belief in God all declined in the pandemic years, but the trend away from organized worship goes back generations.
“We have a data point from the 1950s where only 3 percent of people said they had no [religious] affiliation,” said Mark Chaves, Anne Firor Scott Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Duke University. “It got up to 8 or 9 percent in the 1990s, and it’s sort of accelerated since then.”
Religious scholars consider NORC the gold standard of surveys on faith. The General Social Survey found 29 percent of Americans claiming no religion in 2021, up from 23 percent in 2018 and 5 percent in 1972.
During the pandemic 2020, the share of Americans who belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque dipped below half for possibly the first time in American history. Gallup polling had measured church membership since the Depression, when more than 70 percent of Americans belonged to some house of worship.
Mainline Protestantism, the backbone of faith in many American communities, is “collapsing,” Burge wrote in a recent article on the decline of Baptists, Methodists and other denominations.
Since the 1970s, the share of Americans who identify with Protestant denominations has declined from nearly 1 in 3 to around 1 in 10.
Decades ago, nearly every American child was raised in some religion. Today, nearly 15 percent of the population reports no religious upbringing.
“They’re not saying night prayers, morning prayers, taking their kids to church,” said Thomas Groome, a professor in theology and religious education at Boston College. “Whatever religion we have going forward will be by persuasion and choice and not by inherited identity.”
While many religion trend lines are sinking, one key population is rising: nondenominational Protestants, or “nons,” who worship outside the mainline of Protestantism.
The population of nons has risen from next to nothing in the 1970s to nearly 15 percent of Americans. Nondenominational Protestants “are the second-largest religious group in America today, after Catholics,” Burge said.
Many nons attend megachurches, large congregations that have risen up outside the mainline tradition.
“They might be denominational, but you wouldn’t know it,” Burge said. “A lot of these churches are called the Arc, or the Bridge.” They may not advertise their denomination. Worshippers perceive them as independent of the nation’s religious establishment.
“We don’t like institutions, whether it be banks or unions or big business,” Burge said. “And those nondenominational churches are almost always startups. It’s a guy in his basement.”
But the surging megachurch population is not enough to reverse the downward trend in churchgoing. On NORC surveys, nondenominational Protestants are sprinkled across two categories of religious preference, both in decline.
To some extent, declining faith is a generational trend. The share of Americans who claim no religion rises with progressively younger age groups: 9 percent of the Silent Generation, 18 percent of baby boomers, 25 percent of Generation X, 29 percent of millennials and 34 percent of Generation Z, according to data from the Survey Center on American Life.
But the rise in nonreligious Americans is too steep to be fully explained “in terms of generational replacement; that is, religious old people dying and secular young people taking their place,” said David Campbell, the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.
Campbell and other scholars suspect many Americans are simply becoming more open about rejecting religion, an admission once clouded in stigma.
“It used to be that the religiously uninvolved people, when you asked them what religion they are, they would still say, ‘Yeah, I’m Catholic, I’m Presbyterian,’ whatever,” Chaves said. Today, the same Americans are “taking the next step of saying, ‘I’m nothing.’”
Changing societal norms may also explain why half of Americans can now say they aren’t sure there is a God.
Stigma remains, however, around the idea of rejecting God altogether.
The vast majority of Americans still report they believe in God without reservation, with some doubts, or at least some of the time. If not God per se, they believe in “some higher power.”
True nonbelievers — atheists — account for only 7 percent of the population. Agnostics, who say the existence of God is unknowable, make up another 7 percent.
Belief in God endures even among Americans who claim not to be religious: Roughly half of them believe in some sort of creator, Burge said.
“Assuming that church attendance is the measure of faith, that notion is becoming obsolete,” Groome said. “We’ve always used church attendance as the hallmark of the faith in our people, and I don’t think they’re synonymous.”
Faith and churchgoing remain particularly strong among Republicans. Forty-four percent of Republicans attend church at least once a week, compared to 29 percent of Democrats, Pew data shows. Most atheists are Democrats.
But religion also remains relatively strong among Black and Hispanic Americans. Both groups are more likely than whites to attend church regularly.
“That’s a complication for the Democrats, actually,” Campbell said, because Black and Hispanic voters remain predominantly Democratic.
Despite the steady decline in religiosity, the United States remains “a very religious country by world standards,” Chaves said.
In one global comparison, Pew Research found 19 percent of Americans claimed no religion. The figure was higher in Germany (26 percent), Britain (31 percent), France (32 percent), China (52 percent) and Japan (60 percent), but lower in Russia (15 percent), Italy (13 percent) and India (less than 1 percent).