Americans Still Overwhelmingly Believe in God
Despite the rise of the nones and the emptying of the pews
“America is quickly becoming a godless nation.”
You probably hear a version of that statement made by a Republican politician or an evangelical pastor on a weekly basis. I must confess that my work has probably been invoked when making that claim. The non-religious have risen from 5% in 1972 to about 30% today. The share of Americans who said that they never attend religious services has risen from 12% in 1972 to about 33% in 2022. On those two dimensions, religion is absolutely on the decline.
But that’s only part of the story.
When social scientists think about religion, they often conceptualize it in three ways: belonging (the rise of the nones), behavior (religious service attendance is collapsing), and belief. That last conceptualization doesn’t fit the “religion is in free fall” narrative so neatly.
I often say that religious belief is stubborn in the United States. Despite all the other indicators of religiosity taking a dive, there are still hundreds of millions of Americans who believe in God and the share of Americans who take an atheistic view of God is relatively tiny compared to those who believe in God without a doubt.
Here’s how the General Social Survey has been asking a question about belief in God since 1988:
Please look at this card and tell me which statement comes closest to expressing what you believe about God:
I don’t believe in God
I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to find out.
I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind
I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others
While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God
I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it
Let’s start by just looking at those responses between 1988 and 2022.
Notice anything? A general sense of stability is what first jumps out to me. Most of the lines are just flat over time. The “believe but doubts” and “believe sometimes” share is not statistically different in 1988 compared to 2022.
There has been some movement, though.
The share who believes in God without a doubt has dropped from 63% to 50%.
The agnostic view has increased from 4% in 1988 to 7% in 2022.
The atheist view has increased from 2% to 7% over that same time period.
But even today, when the nones are 30% and never attending is just a bit higher than that, 86% of people say that they believe in God at some level.
For every person who says God doesn’t exist, there are seven who say that God exists without a doubt.
Belief is stubborn in the United States.
Let’s take a bit of a deeper dive into this, though. I broke the data down in five-year birth cohorts. The goal here is to understand if belief is declining because individuals stop believing as they age, or it’s just generational replacement, which is the idea that younger people believe in God less than older ones and when the old die off, they are replaced by less certain believers.
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