Talking Points

Will anyone be happy with a post-religious America?

Post-religious America is growing up. That's the bottom line of a new survey by Deseret News and Marist Poll. Researchers saw declines in religious practice in most demographic groups, but generational differences were especially stark. 

According to the report, Americans "60 or older (43 percent) are more likely than their younger counterparts to attend religious services at least weekly." By contrast, just "21 percent of those 18-29, 25 percent of those 30-44, and 27 percent of those 45-59 attend religious services at least weekly." That likely inflates real numbers, since "desirability bias" encourages respondents to report their aspirations rather than their actual practices. 

Post-religious doesn't mean atheist. Like other recent research, the new study found that majorities continue to express religious beliefs even while they disengage from organized worship and formal institutions. Fifty-four percent continue to express belief in God "as described in the Bible. " And a further 29 percent profess to believe in a non-Biblical God or some other higher power. The large cohort of professed believers is roughly consistent with the 71 percent of Americans who describe themselves as "spiritual," whether or not they embrace any traditional theology.

But it's clear that the religious landscape continues to fragment as Americans pursue more personalized forms of expression and association. Although the report doesn't speculate about the causes, it's possible that interruption of normal services and other activities due to COVID-19 encouraged this preexisting trend. If there's a silver lining for religious leaders and institutions, it's the finding that 87 percent of Americans think it's important to participate in a close knit community. If they can convince more people that churches, synagogues, or mosques are the communities they're looking for, perhaps the trend could be reversed.

Appeals to community seem more likely to work among previous attenders than those who've never participated before, though. Given the pattern of disengagement among the young, the future looks bifurcated. On the one hand stands a minority of the seriously committed. While those who are actively religious at all may be more devout than their parents and grandparents, they're also more likely to pick and choose among traditions and institutions that suit them. On the other stands a larger cohort of the weakly or non-affiliated for whom religion preserves some relevance, but only as the vague and undemanding disposition that sociologists Christian Smith and Marissa Lundquist Denton dubbed "moral therapeutic deism."

That scenario involves frustrations for both the right and the left. On the one hand, traditional religion seems to be facing continued retreat at least for the next several decades. It won't disappear, but it will become more cultural and politically marginal. On the other hand, European-style secularism is unlikely to take hold any time soon. At least symbolic professions of faith and aspirational attachment to religious belief and practice remain important parts of public life. 

The survey includes some evidence supporting that deflating conclusion: Nobody gets what they want.

More than 70 percent of respondents expressed the view that the nation's moral compass is pointed in the wrong direction. One way or the other, very few Americans are getting what they want.