Those findings and many others are in the Pew Research Center’s latest Religious Landscape Study, one in which 35,000 Americans from all 50 states were polled about their religious affiliations, beliefs and practices, and social and political views. It’s such an enormous undertaking it’s only been done twice, the first time in 2007 and again in 2014.
Pew’s research shows interest in organized religion has generally declined nationwide, with 70.6 percent of the population identifying themselves as a member of a Christian religion in 2014 compared to 78.4 percent in 2007. The biggest declines were among mainline Protestants and Catholics, which fell 3.4 and 3.1 percent, respectively, during that period.
Declines were steeper among whites.
But people don’t necessarily think of themselves as less religious or less spiritual. More are declaring themselves believers in God but not affiliated with any one religion. The percentage of those in the unaffiliated category rose 6.7 percent.
Drill down to Ohio, Michigan, and other parts of the Midwest and you’ll find patterns somewhat typical of the national average, with slightly different numbers.
— Seventy-three percent of Ohio’s population belongs to a Christian religion, compared to 70 percent in Michigan. In both states, most are age 30 and older. But Ohio experienced a 7 percent and Michigan a 4 percent decline in residents between the ages of 30 and 49 who belonged to a Christian religion between 2007 and 2014.
— Two of every three Ohio residents (67 percent) said they firmly believed in God in 2014. That’s down 5 percent from 2007, when 72 percent of Ohioans said they were firm believers. In Michigan, 63 percent of its residents said they firmly believed in God in 2014, a decline of 8 percent compared to 2007, when 71 percent of its residents did.
— Eighty-one percent of Ohioans said in 2014 that religion was at least somewhat important in their lives, down from 85 percent in 2007. In Michigan, religion was at least somewhat important to 77 percent of that state in 2014, down from 84 percent in 2007.
One of the bigger surprises was on the issue of homosexuality, where many parts of the country were found to be more accepting of it.
In 2014, 60 percent of Ohioans believed homosexuality should be accepted, a full 10 percent more than 2007, when half of the state’s population thought that way. In Michigan, the increase was even larger: Sixty-two percent of Michiganders said in 2014 that homosexuality should be accepted, compared to only 49 percent in 2007 — a 13 percent increase.
“Americans and Westerners in general have been growing more toward individualism,” said Benjamin Brown, chair and professor of Lourdes University’s theological studies program. “We tend not to trust institutions as much as we did in the past.”
Declines in church attendance aren’t directly attributable to high-profile events, such as scandals involving sexually abusive priest scandals in the Catholic Church, most of which predated the first Pew research study in 2007.
Brown said the religious trends seem more in line with societal trends in general, from the nation’s reliance on fast food and prepackaged meals to our greater interconnection — but less face-to-face contact — that has come with the rising popularity of social media.
We have become a nation of people who avoid meaningful commitments, are more self-absorbed, enjoy the conveniences of modern life, and are less loyal to institutions, from churches to government to our employers, he said.
“Subconsciously, we like things to be quick, easy and simple,” Brown said. “Relationships always involve risk. You can’t have a relationship without risk.”
Churches now, especially the newer ones, seem to be tailoring programs around how they can make those who worship with them more comfortable, he said.
“That’s only going to get us so far, I think,” Brown said.
The data shows Millennials — the children of baby boomers — are the hardest group to get involved with organized religion.
Brown said he is impressed by the work of psychologist Jean Twenge, author of a book called “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — And More Miserable Than Ever Before.” In it, Ms. Twenge uses data from 11 million respondents to make a case for why she believes today’s youth are tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious but also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful and anxious.
“Millennials tend to be self-focused. Not necessarily in a selfish way, because they also tend to value service,” Brown said.
But there’s a humbling aspect to religion they apparently don’t understand. Being raised in a generation in which everyone is used to getting participation trophies, they appear to have a more inflated view of themselves than previous generations. They might not be embracing religion because they don’t think they need to be humbled, he said.
“You kind of have to acknowledge your own failures,” Brown said. “That first step is you have to admit you need to grow.”
The move away from organized religion began in Europe after World War II. It appears to have started in the United States in the 1990s.
“People seem to be shifting their search for meaning by looking within rather than to the Heavens. This may be motivating a decline of interest in organized religion,” the late Steven Reiss, an Ohio State University professor emeritus of psychology and widely quoted scholar who spent 30 years studying human motivation, wrote in a Nov. 24, 2015, article he had published in The Conversation.
“That doesn’t mean this will always be so. Religion may change and adapt — as it has before — to better meet our basic human needs,” Reiss wrote. “Whether it will remains an open question.”
Jeanine Diller, University of Toledo assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies, called the movement away from organized religion “a tsunami that has been hitting America’s religion.” She agreed the concept of individualism is on the rise, but said that goes back as far as the writings of French philosopher René Descartes in the 1600s.
“There have been big threats to religion for hundreds of years,” Diller said.
She said one of the possible explanations lies in a 2010 book called “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” In it, authors David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam argue the counter-culture revolution of the ‘60s has led to many changes in society, including how people view religion.
In the 1950s, during what Diller calls the “Golden Age of Religious Affiliation,” only 2 or 3 percent of Americans were religious-yet-unaffiliated. By 1975, it had grown to 6-7 percent — and has been growing since.
The Vietnam War, Woodstock, Watergate, Roe vs. Wade, the sexual revolution: They may seem detached from religion, but — according to Diller — such watershed events have been symptoms of society’s changing mores. Then, in the 1980s, came the rise of far right Christian extremists, which Diller believes could have persuaded many moderate- and liberal-minded Christians to become unaffiliated.
“There came a mingling of politics and conservative evangelical Christianity. You get this religious political right that keeps growing. It’s taking over what Christianity represents,” she said. “The political identity ran deeper than the religious identity, so they dropped the religious identity.”
Diller cites work of researcher Linda Mercandante, who hypothesized in her 2014 book “Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious” that baby boomers — because of their counter-cultural experiences of the ‘60s and ‘70s — were less apt to force organized religion on their children.
“So their children grew up largely unaffiliated, and some stayed that way,” Diller said.
But Peter Feldmeier, UT Murray/Bacik professor of Catholic studies, said there “isn’t a single answer to this phenomenon.” A devout Roman Catholic, he said he has a hard time accepting the concept of being spiritual but unconnected to any one religion. He agreed the trend is probably rooted in the rise of individualism, but said being unaffiliated can be superficial.
“It’s as if being affiliated with a religion is limiting,” Feldmeier said. “If you really want to take spirituality seriously, I don’t see how you can do that without a community.”
In the 1950s, people rarely changed denominations within their Christian religions. “By 1970, this became much more possible and increasingly almost typical,” Feldmeier said, adding that belief systems probably changed slightly, too, as more people moved into suburbs.
Meanwhile, Christianity — while on the decline in Europe and North America — is rapidly increasing in Africa. In 1900, Africa had seven million Christians making up about 5 percent of its population. Today, it has an estimated 400 million comprising 53 percent of the population, Feldmeier said.
This much is clear: Many people are uncertain about organized religion’s future, Diller observed.
“Whether you consider it a crisis or a revolution is going to depend on your standpoint,” she said.