Young Americans dropping out of religion, other American Grace findings by Putnam/Campbell

Saying Grace - Flickr photo by ImCait

Saying Grace - Flickr photo by ImCait

Robert D. Putnam (Harvard) and David Campbell (Notre Dame) recently previewed selected themes from their forthcoming book American Grace at the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that draws a select group of the leading journalists on religion in America.

As Michael Gerson, ex-speechwriter to President George Bush and one of the Pew Forum attendees, noted in his opening paragraph in a recent nationally syndicated and well-nuanced op-ed in the Washington Post:

“There is a book that everyone will be talking about — when it appears over a year from now. American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives, being written by…Putnam and… Campbell, is already creating a buzz. Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, is the pre-eminent academic expert on American civic life. Campbell is his rising heir. And the book they haven’t yet finished will make just about everyone constructively uncomfortable.”

Putnam and Campbell’s analysis draws on the Faith Matters data they collected — a national, authoritative large-scale, hour-long survey on religion (beliefs, belonging and behavior),  social and political engagement, and religious and political beliefs.  They followed up in a very rare panel survey, reinterviewing the same respondents 6-9 months later to understand the stability of our religion and religious beliefs and to get traction on the issue of causation.  Their research also entails a dozen to fifteen in-depth case studies of religious denominations and churches of many stripes across all parts of the nation.

American Grace finds evidence of unprecedented polarization along religious and political lines, with politics driving changes in religious attendance rather than the reverse!  But amidst the deepening divides, they find a startlingly high level of support on all sides for religious diversity. Most deeply religious Americans reject the idea of a theocratic society run by Christian ayatollahs, while most secular Americans are quite comfortable with the idea of a society infused with religious and moral values.  In short, they argue, America today represents a historical rarity—a society that is both deeply religious and deeply tolerant.  [For example, Americans believe that Americans of other religions can go to heaven, even Christians of non-Christians.  Moreover, 8 of 10 Americans think there are "basic truths in many religions" and 85% of Americans say that religious diversity is good for the country.]

Here are a few of their interesting findings:

  • Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of 5-6 times the historic rate (30-40% have no religion today versus 5-10% a generation ago).  But youth’s religious disaffection is largely due to discomfort with religiosity having been tied to conservative politics.  Putnam and Campbell expect, given the remarkable history of American religious entrepreneurship (from Mormonism to revival meetings to megachurches), that this disaffection from religion is temporary: religious entrepreneurs will rise to offer these young Americans the less politicized religion that they crave.
  • Americans today inherit both religion and congregation far less than their parents and grandparents did and there is remarkable religious fluidity, with between 1/3 and 1/2 of all Americans changing religion from the one they were born into.  [The lower bound does not count a denominational shift like that from Methodists to Calvinists as a switch and only counts a change in religion from Judaism to Buddhism or from Baptist to no-religion.]  And there has been remarkably more entrepreneurial sorting of congregations and congregation shopping with congregants finding a religious home within a denomination that maximally meets their wants and needs (sometimes through stricter “churches”, sometimes through looser ones).
  • There is a remarkable degree of religious bridging in our social networks: approximately 70% of Americans have at least some extended family of a different religion than they are, and this rises to 75% for closest friends, and 85% of Americans who live among at least some neighbors of a different religion.  The interlinkage of these religious networks helps to constrain any message of intolerance that parishioners get from the pulpit.
  • Religious Americans are better citizens than non-religious ones (they give more to secular causes, volunteer more for secular causes, and join more, to mention a few markers of good citizenship). However, it is not their particular theology that predicts good citizenship, but the extent to which they are embedded in a friendship network of religious others (regardless of their religion). [Putnam refers to these religious friends as "powerful, supercharged friends."]  So it is religious social networks, not teachings from the pulpit that are key to them being 3-4 times more generous than the most secular Americans.

American Grace will come out in October 2010.

Michael Gerson’s syndicated Op-Ed “Religion and Our Civic Behavior” is here. (Wash. Post, 5/8/09)

See “Getting to Know You” (Wall Street Journal by Naomi Schaefer Riley, 5/15/09) [which discusses the extent of religious bridging social capital in America, and how having friends of different religions changes ones views toward that religion]

Also, see “Religious People Make Better Citizens” (BeliefNet.org)

Excerpt below from “Religion and Our Civic Behavior” By Michael Gerson:

“[R]eligious affiliation has declined in America since World War II, especially among the young. The change was not gradual or linear. It arrived, according to Putnam, in “one shock and two aftershocks.” The shock came in the 1960s. As conservatives have asserted, the philosophy of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is an alternative to religious affiliation (though some of the rocking religious would dispute the musical part). Baby boomers were far less religious than their parents at the same age — the probable result, says Putnam, of a “very rapid change in morals and customs.”

“This retreating tide of religion affected nearly every denomination equally — except that it was less severe among evangelicals. While not dramatically increasing their percentage of the American population, evangelicals did increase their percentage among the religious in America. According to Putnam, religious “entrepreneurs” such as Jerry Falwell organized and channeled the conservative religious reaction against the 1960s into the religious right — the first aftershock.

“But this reaction provoked a reaction — the second aftershock. The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: “If this is religion, I’m not interested.” The social views of this younger cohort are not entirely predictable — both the pro-life and the homosexual-rights movement have made gains. But Americans now in their 20s are much more secular than the baby boomers were at the same stage of life. About 30 percent or 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated…. Putnam calls this “a stunning development.” As many liberals suspected, the religious right was not good for religion.

The result of the shock and aftershocks is polarization. The general level of religiosity in America hasn’t changed much over the years. But, as Putnam says, “more people are very religious and many are not at all.” And these beliefs have become “correlated with partisan politics….There are fewer liberals in the pews and fewer unchurched conservatives.”

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4 responses to “Young Americans dropping out of religion, other American Grace findings by Putnam/Campbell

  1. Putnam and American scholars of religion have a too narrow focus. When religion goes, what is left is not a vacuum because other forms of social capital spring up to take it’s place.

    Look at the least religious countries in the world – New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden. They are among the happiest nations on earth, with strong communities.

    Fear not, Americans, the future is non-religious and it is good!

  2. I love secularist preachers. What turns people off religion is the same thing that will make many folks my age react negatively to Tom Rees’ post…lack of humility. Certainty about that which is uncertain.

    Does Rees really think his understanding of the situation is better than a guy who spoke with many people over the span of months about this specific topic? From where does his opinion derive? Talking with people who think like he does?

    Putnam’s study shows that religious folks in the US give more time and money to non-church groups (using real facts). So, in the event religion doesn’t disappear, it looks like Tom Rees need not fear, either.

  3. Great blog thank you for having it. I really appreciate what you have posted so far and look forward to reading more from you soon. We need more sites like this on the internet. Good, Christian sites proclaiming the word of the Lord. I have a Bible blog that I hope you will check out and let me know what you think. God’s Peace!

  4. What we need to realize is that although many American’s who are of younger generations are learning in their schools that it is okay to as questions about their religion. I think that this statement a fore mentioned by Putnam and Campbell in regards to younger generations changing religions. It is interesting that this would happen.

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