Religion falters as more Americans reject traditional institutions



The exterior of the First Baptist Church in Cameron, La., on Sunday, May 23, 2021 shows how it was heavily damaged during Hurricane Laura last year. (AP Photo/Rebecca Santana)

A recent Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans with a membership at a house of worship fell under 50 percent for the first time in 80 years. 

As a whole, religion’s influence in the nation has been declining the past several years, which might surprise some, considering the current Supreme Court deliberations on Roe v. Wade. 

“Things like patriotism and nationalism … while they’re not usually thought of as ‘religious’ forces, have all the trappings associated with traditional ideas of religion,” said Michael Budde, a religion and politics professor at DePaul. “Notions of transcendence, ultimate purpose, a willingness to sacrifice, prescribed practices of worship and devotion — and more.”

There are several theories as to why religion’s grip on society is slipping. 

“There’s the general rise of secularism, which is to say the recognition of non-adherence to religion as a viable option,” said Scott Paeth, a DePaul religious studies professor.  “[Additionally, there] is the general decline in institutional life generally. Religion, insofar as it is housed within institutional forms like churches, synagogues, mosques or temples, is experiencing the same decline as all other institutions as civil society collapses and people become more isolated and insular.”

Christopher Robinson, a religious studies instructor at DePaul, believes that it’s not religion in general that’s declining, but traditional forms of it.

“People are more accepting in a variety of ways of the beliefs of others,” Robinson said. 

He also said that he sees the decline in religious participation being partly due to the sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic church and, more recently, the backing of former President Donald Trump by a large population of evangelical Christians

It appears this is an issue internationally as well. 

“The current conflict between Israel, Palestine and Hamas also interjects a sort of caution regarding any official religious affiliation and the consequences of ‘blind faith,’” Robinson said.  “Granted, very few American religions require blind faith but the popular imagination when it comes to religion is pretty shallow and shaped by pop culture.”

The pandemic has also played a role in the apparent decline, as many houses of worship have been closed due to social distancing guidelines. 

“This allowed literally millions of individuals to ‘experiment’ with religion without any commitment, affiliation or even personal identification,” Robinson said. “People could go online and visit a mosque, a Catholic mass, listen to High Holy Days chants and celebrate a virtual Hajj, among many other things.”

While it remains unclear if the pandemic will have a lasting effect on religion’s influence in society, there is concern on the implication a decline in religious influence can have on the country and its structure.

“For people who believe that religious institutions add something to the common life of a society, I think that the decline of those institutions means that we risk losing something valuable,” Paeth said.  “But again, this is as much about the overall decline of institutions as it is about religious institutions in particular.”