The future of religion in America is increasingly murky



If we Americans bother every once in a while to take a serious look at how our society is profoundly changing from what it used to be, we’re often surprised at what we find.

Take religion, for example. The long-held stereotypes of religious people in this country simply don’t apply any more.

Daniel Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute, wrote this last summer on the website FiveThirtyEight.com.:

“The U.S. was once a predominantly white Christian country, but fewer than half of Americans (45 percent) identify as white Christian today.”

One of the reasons for this change is that there are more religions in America these days.

Cox explains:

The American religious landscape is transforming rapidly. At one time, religious diversity meant: Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian. Today, it encompasses a multiplicity of religious traditions such as Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism, as well as an increasing variety of non-institutional belief systems such as humanism, skepticism, atheism and subjective spirituality. Racial and ethnic shifts have also changed the face of Christianity.

There are numerous other factors, of course, contributing to changes in thoughts about religion among Americans. . Greater mobility and the rise of social media expose us to a greater variety of attitudes toward religion. Our grandparents and great-grandparents likely knew relatively few people who didn’t share their religious beliefs. Diversity was not common among folks in those old days — at least not in most locales.

A funny thing about that is that diversity seems to militate against religious fervor. Here again, Daniel Cox explains:

Geographically, states with greater religious variety tend to exhibit lower levels of overall religiosity.2The religious diversity for each state was calculated using the Herfindahl-Hirschman index, one of the most commonly used measures of diversity. No state is more religiously uniform than Mississippi. It is a place where, as my colleague and native Mississippian Robert Jones once said: “It’s hard to swing a dead cat without hitting a Baptist.” And this is not far from the truth. Half of the state’s population identifies as Baptist and 54 percent are evangelical Protestant. No other state is so singularly dominated by a single faith tradition. It’s probably no coincidence that Mississippi is also one of the few states with constitutions that prohibit atheists from serving in elected office. According to Gallup’s 2016 rankings of the most and least religious states, Mississippi has the honor of being the most religious state in the country. A separate measure of religiosity computed by the Pew Research Center has Mississippi tied with Alabama as the most religious state in the U.S. See: Lipka, Michael and Benjamin Wormald. “How religious is your state?” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.: Feb. 29, 2016. In contrast, Oregon ranks high in terms of religious diversity — no one religious tradition makes up more than 20 percent of the state’s population — and falls near the bottom in Gallup’s ranking. Only four states are less religious.

Does all of this mean that religion is dying out in America? Probably not. But it seems to indicate that profound changes are at hand. As Daniel Cox says:

It does not signal the end of religion, but it may make it easier for Americans to abstain from religious involvement and encourage other types of spiritual and philosophical explorations. It may also make atheists more willing to “come out,” something that can be exceedingly difficult in very religious communities. Organized religion has never been in jeopardy of dying out due to a single traumatic event. Instead, it is a cumulative series of unanswered challenges that pose the greatest risk. Religious diversity might not represent a dramatic threat to religion, but it may represent another small hole in an already sinking ship.