The religiously unaffiliated

You may have heard about the Pew Report from a few weeks ago. John Turner at The Anxious Bench wrote about the survey and linked to Mark Tooley’s article on the report. Tooley puts the report in some historical context. Here’s a key quote, part of which Turner quoted as well:

The myth that America was once a solidly Christian and church going nation that only recently has secularized is widely believed by religious and secular alike. But the 40 percent of Americans who’ve regularly across the last 80 years at least claimed they attend church regularly is almost certainly higher than church going was in the 19th century, which itself was likely higher than the 18th century, as a footnote in the Pew study briefly admits.

If America now today seems more secular, it is because cultural elites 100 years ago, including college presidents and faculty, publishers and newspaper editors, were likely to be churchmen. Fifty years ago, cultural elites were less churchy but remained at least respectful of religion. Today’s cultural elites, joined by popular entertainment and broadcast journalism, clustered in coastal cities or in university towns in between, are neither respectful nor even very aware of religious America. Almost certainly the 6 percent of Americans whom Pew reports are atheist or agnostic are disproportionately represented within their ranks.

I think that Tooley underestimates the importance of the cultural shift, but his article is still worth the read. As my friend Kevin pointed out when I shared the link on Facebook, Tooley seems to equate churchgoing with Christianity. It’s important to think about the wider cultural atmosphere. I wonder if there were some people in, say, 18th- and 19th-century America who didn’t attend church regularly who may have had a more Christian outlook than some who are regular church attenders today, simply because the cultural environment (the “plausibility structures,” as sociologist Peter Berger calls them) supported Christian belief more than it does now.


One comment

  1. Your theory sounds reasonable to me. The footnote that Tooley mentions actually refers to 17% Congregational membership, not attendance. I did a little searching about attendance and below are some excerpts. None of them link to primary sources, though perhaps the Mark Noll book might (which I think you’ve read).

    Library of Congress: II. Religion in Eighteenth-Century America:

    Between 1700 and 1740, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the population attended churches, which were being built at a headlong pace.

    AP US History: Chapter 15: The Ferment of Reform and Culture, 1790-1860:

    Church attendance was still a regular ritual for about three-fourths of the 23 million Americans in 1850; religion of these years was not the old-time religion of colonial days

    Early American Church Denominations:

    There’s been an interesting change regarding church membership during American church history. Colonial church membership was relatively low–rarely higher than a third of adult New Englanders and as low as five percent of adults in the South. Yet there was a relatively regular participation during the colonial period in religious activities and rather high church attendance. A study of diaries, missionary reports sent back to England, and other fragmentary evidence suggests that in 1700 as many as half to three-fourths of the colonists attended some kind of religious service with some regularity. Now in modern United States, formal church membership is considerably higher than actual church attendance. Figures in the 1980s showed around 60% of Americans were church members. [Source: Mark A. Noll. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada.]

    And for a smattering of direct contradiction of all of the above, with a distinct perspective:

    Wall of separation between church and State:

    An examination of an expansive listing of Founding Fathers reveals the extent to which establishment churches were represented. While actual church attendance hovered around 10% of Americans in the 1780s, church membership – thanks to colonial/state laws that mandated or favored a certain religious affiliation – was much larger.

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