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Fewer Than Half Of U.S. Adults Belong To A Religious Congregation, New Poll Shows

The Rev. Michael Amabisco blesses ashes during an Ash Wednesday service at St. Raymond Catholic Church in Menlo Park, Calif., in February. A new Gallup survey finds that those professing church membership has fallen 18 percentage points among Catholics since 2000.
Randy Vazquez
Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images
The Rev. Michael Amabisco blesses ashes during an Ash Wednesday service at St. Raymond Catholic Church in Menlo Park, Calif., in February. A new Gallup survey finds that those professing church membership has fallen 18 percentage points among Catholics since 2000.

Fewer than half of U.S. adults say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, according to a new Gallup survey that highlights a dramatic trend away from religious affiliation in recent years among all age groups.

The new Gallup poll, published Monday, indicates that religious membership in the U.S. has fallen to just 47% among those surveyed — representing less than half of the adult population for the first time since Gallup began asking the question more than 80 years ago.

While membership in a house of worship fell only slightly in the latest survey, which was conducted in part during the coronavirus pandemic, the results reflect a trend that Gallup has been tracking since the turn of the century.

In 2018, 50% of adults polled said they belonged to a religious congregation, down sharply from the 70% who said so as recently as 1999. That figure fluctuated only a few percentage points over a period of six decades beginning in 1937 — the first year of the survey — when 73% of U.S. adults said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque.

Catholics have seen the greatest decline, with an 18-point drop in the past two decades, double the 9-point decline for Protestants. Gallup said it doesn't have sufficient data to analyze trends for other religions.

Among other subgroups, Democrats showed a 25 percentage point decline in church membership since 2000, compared with a 12-point decline for Republicans. Independents saw an 18-point drop. Overall, conservatives were nearly twice as likely to be religiously affiliated as liberals.

Regional differences were also apparent, with declines in church membership in the same time period greater in the East (-25 percentage points) than in the South (-16 points), Midwest (-18 points) or West (-19 points). Non-college graduates and unmarried individuals also showed greater declines in church membership than college-educated and married individuals over this time period.

"[D]eclines in church membership are proportionately smaller among political conservatives, Republicans, married adults and college graduates," Gallup said. "These groups tend to have among the highest rates of church membership, along with Southern residents and non-Hispanic Black adults."

Despite these data, survey participants might still attend a house of worship and/or subscribe to a specific faith without holding formal membership in a religious congregation.

For years, demographers have cited millennials as being on the cusp of "the rise of the 'nones'" – a group defined as atheists, agnostics and those who say they have no religious preference. But, as Gallup points out, more Americans of every age bracket — including "traditionalists" born before 1946 – say they are among this group.

"Since the turn of the century, there has been a near doubling in the percentage of traditionalists (from 4% to 7%), baby boomers (from 7% to 13%) and Gen Xers (11% to 20%) with no religious affiliation," Gallup says.

However, Gallup points out that demographic shifts, not a sudden disaffection among the religious, appear to account for much of that change, "with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong."

Even with those declines, 66% of traditionalists, 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials said they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. "The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials," Gallup said.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted last summer, as the coronavirus pandemic raged, showed that 3 in 10 Americans reported stronger personal faith due to the pandemic. But people who said they "prioritize religion" in their lives were more likely to say their faith had grown stronger.

In conclusion, Gallup states that though the "U.S. remains a religious nation ... far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship."

"While it is possible that part of the decline seen in 2020 was temporary and related to the coronavirus pandemic, continued decline in future decades seems inevitable, given the much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger versus older generations of adults," it states.

Gallup says it compiled the survey from interviews of 6,117 randomly sampled adults in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The interviews were conducted by telephone from 2018 to 2020. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, Gallup says.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.