Is Anyone Going to Church More Now Than They Used To?
A desperate quest in search of increased religious attendance
There’s this funny thing that happens when I give a talk. It always comes up near the end of Q&A. I’ve prattled on for an hour or more about all the signs of secularization. The nones are rising, attendance is dropping, denominations are shedding members by the tens of thousands. You know, the usual stuff that shows up on my Substack.
The host will look at me and say, “So Ryan, do you have any good news you can share about American religion?” They want me to end the talk on an up note. I get that inclination, for sure. It feels like the right thing to do. I guess that’s been deeply engrained in me after growing up watching all kinds of half hour sitcoms where the conflict is resolved and every one ends up with the happy ending as the episode ends.
I do have a couple statistics in my mental file drawer that I can pull up for just such an occasion. One of my standbys is: “Religious belief is still really strong in America.” And it is. I wrote about that here:
But I wanted to try and add another data point to that very short file of “positive developments in American religion.” That’s how this post came about. I was just looking for anything related to religious attendance that was in a positive direction.
Let’s start with the broad story (and, yes, it’s clearly bad news for people of faith).
I estimated the share of American adults who reported attending a church, synagogue, or mosque once a week using data from the Cooperative Election Study I also generated an estimate of those who never attend religious services. Then, I merged that with Census data about the number of adult Americans. That should get me a fairly good estimate about the number of Americans who are never attending and those who are regular attenders.
In 2008, over 70 million adults were attending a house of worship once a week compared to 45 million who never attended religious services. The gap between those figures got progressively smaller over time. By 2013, it was pretty clear that the lines were going to cross in the immediate future. They danced back and forth for a couple of years until 2017, when it became clear that never attenders definitively outnumbered those attending every week.
By 2020, about 65 million adults attended every week and 75 million were never attending religious services. The most recent estimate comes from 2022 when there were 85 million never attenders and 62 million weekly attenders. Note that the never attenders today outnumber the weekly attenders in 2008 (85M vs 70M).
The share of never attenders has increased by FORTY MILLION between 2008 and 2022. And, that’s just adults by the way. I can’t really estimate children who attend.
So, that’s obviously not the data point that I am searching for when it comes to higher rates of religious attendance. How about I break it down by state? Maybe there are regions where attendance may be actually climbing. That’s what I did in the map below using data from 2008 and 2022.
There is dark blue on this map (this represents a state reporting any increase at all in the data). However, I am going to temper this a whole lot. The states that report increased attendance are incredibly small in terms of population. Wyoming, North Dakota, Vermont, and DC. It’s probably nothing more than a weird sample in the 2008 version of the CES than any real gain in religious attendance. Or I’ve just missed stories about religious revival in North Dakota.
On the contrary, most states have reported a dip in weekly attendance that is typically between five and ten percentage points. That’s the case across many states in the Midwest and down through the Deep South. It’s also true way out west in places like Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona.
Some states have reported a smaller decline - California, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and New York stand out. But then there are some places with a double digit decline. Texas really jumps out to me - down ten percentage points since 2008. But also a lot of really conservative states in this bucket like Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Kansas, as well.
What about older folks, though? Don’t they flock to church as they get older, seeking some type of eternal insurance? I tested that out by breaking the data from the CES down into five year birth cohorts and then tracking their religious attendance from 2008 through 2022. I don’t know if there's any evidence of movement toward more religious attendance in this graph.
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