Why is there a decline in religion? For one thing, young Americans have different habits. Rather than join institutions, millennials, argued Wade Clark Roof, author of the book Spiritual Marketplace, are indulging in a kind of “grazing,” finding their spiritual fixes in various different places rather than any one organized church. As sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell explained, those in this age group “reject conventional religious affiliation, while not entirely giving up their religious feelings.”
“If it turns out that there is a God … the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.”—Woody Allen
If you go into a Reform or Conservative temple, it’s likely that you will notice two things: The congregation is becoming smaller and older. Across the United States and Europe, Jewish congregations are aging at a rapid rate, a phenomenon increasingly common for mainstream religions across the high-income world.
Overall, the American Jewish population—unlike that of demographically robustIsrael—is on the decline, with a loss of 300,000 members over the past decade, a number expected to drop further by 2050. The median age of members of Reform congregations is 54, and only 17 percent of members say they attend religious services even once a month. Four-fifths of the movement’s youth are gone by the time they graduate high school. The conservative movement is, if anything, in even worse shape: At its height, in 1965, the Conservative movement had 800 affiliated synagogues throughout the United States and Canada; by 2015 that number had fallen to 594.
But Jews, and their religious institutions, should not feel singled out. The share of Americans who belong to the Catholic Church has declined from 24 percent in 2007 to 21 percent in 2014, a more rapid decline according to Pew, then any other religious organization in memory. There are 6.5 former Catholics in the U.S. for every new convert to the faith, not a number suggesting a very sunny future.
The mainstream Protestant churches are not exactly filling the sanctuaries either. Some, like the internally conflicted Methodists have seen their number of North American congregants drop from 15 million in 1970 to barely half that today. Since 2007 alone, America’s mainstream churches have lost 5 million members, and even the once vibrant evangelical movement is losing adherents outside of the developing world. Ever more churches, particularly in urban areas, are being abandoned, turned into bars, restaurants, and luxury condos. And nothing augurs worse for the future than the fact that American millennials are leaving religious institutions at a rate four times that of their counterparts three decades ago; almost 40 percent of people 18 to 29 are not unaffiliated.
This decline is not necessarily a reflection of less spiritual feeling: Two-thirds of unaffiliated Americans still believe in God or a universal spirit. The Pew poll shows that since 2012, the share of Americans who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” has surged from 19 percent to 27 percent five years later.
Why, then, the decline in religion? For one thing, young Americans have different habits. Rather than join institutions, millennials, argued Wade Clark Roof, author of the book Spiritual Marketplace, are indulging in a kind of “grazing,” finding their spiritual fixes in various different places rather than any one organized church. As sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell explained, those in this age group “reject conventional religious affiliation, while not entirely giving up their religious feelings.”
But the consumption habits of the young aren’t the only reason for America’s religious drought. Religious institutions and ideas are currently under political attack, predominantly from the left, with some progressives, such as California’s Dianne Feinstein or New Jersey’s Cory Booker, appearing to see embrace of Christian dogma, or even membership in such anodyne organizations as the Knights of Columbus, as cause for exclusion from high judicial office.
This trend is reinforced by the media , which is often dismissive of traditional faith. There has been a powerful tendency to demonize and suggest the worst of motives among the faithful, which was evident in the rush to judgment about the alleged racism of the Covington, Kentucky, religious students. Before the facts proved claims of racism to be false, newspaper accounts and tweets from journalists endorsed actions against the students, sometime including violence, in ways more reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels than Joseph Pulitzer.
As in many cases, this bias reflects the groupthink nurtured at our leading universities. Evangelicals and religious conservatives barely exist in the country’s leading theological seminaries, where they are outnumbered, by some estimates, 70 to 1 by liberals, and evidence suggests that those espousing traditional religious views are widely discriminated against in academic departments.
In this difficult environment, many religious movements—Reform Judaism, mainstream Protestantism, and increasingly the Catholic Church under Pope Francis—have sought to redefine themselves largely as instruments of social justice. Although doing good deeds, or mitzvot, long has constituted a strong element in most religions, the primary motivation of the faith community traditionally focused on heritage, spirituality, and family. In their haste to be politically correct, even Catholic private schools such as Notre Dame are rushing to cover up murals of Columbus, and, in one California case, a private Catholic grammar school has gone as far as hiding statues of saints.