How devout are we? Study shows evangelicals surge as Catholics wane

November 27, 2012 by Steve Smith

(—The percentage of Americans who say they are strong in their religious faith has been steady for the last four decades, a new study finds. But in that same time, the intensity of some religious groups has surged while others—notably Roman Catholics—has faded.

Among the risers: Evangelicals, who have become more staunchly devout since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, now report the lowest proportion of strongly affiliated followers among major American religious traditions.

The drop in intensity could present challenges for the Roman Catholic Church, the study suggests, both in terms of church participation and in Catholics' support for the church's social and theological positions.

"On the whole, the results show that Americans' strength of was stable from the 1970s to 2010," said Philip Schwadel, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln who authored the study, to be published in the journal . "But upon closer examination, there is considerable divergence between evangelical Protestants on the one hand and Catholics and mainline Protestants on the other."

Schwadel modeled data from nearly 40,000 respondents to the from 1974-2010 and created a measure for Americans' strength of religious affiliation over time.

Overall, the proportion of Americans who said they were "strongly affiliated" with their religion increased from 38 percent in the 1970s to a high of more than 43 percent in the mid-1980s. That number slid to 37 percent by the end of the '80s and has remained stable ever since, the study showed.

Big changes came within the nation's various denominations and , however—most noticeably between Catholics and evangelicals. Since the 1980s, an intensity gap emerged between the groups, the study found. By 2010, about 56 percent of evangelicals said they considered themselves strong adherents to their faith. For Catholics, it was just 35 percent, four percentage points lower than mainline Protestants.

"Sociologists have been writing about declines in mainline Protestantism for the last few decades," Schwadel said. "The tremendous decline in Catholics' strength of affiliation, though, was somewhat surprising."

Schwadel's analysis suggests the changes are related to "period-based" effects—the popular discourse, political events or other occurrences that can lead to changes among certain groups of people during a specific time period.

In Catholics' case, the study shows an abrupt decline in strength of affiliation starting in 1984 and ending in 1989. The findings suggest this could be in reaction to publicity around sex abuse scandals involving priests at that time, as well as the growing number of Latino Catholics responding to the survey. Prior research has shown Latino Catholics to be unlikely to report a strong religious affiliation compared with other Catholics.

Meanwhile, evangelicals' strength of affiliation began to swell in the early 1990s, following the growth of their presence in the public sphere during the prior decade, the study shows.

"Social change of this sort often occurs across generations, in response to generation-specific socialization processes," Schwadel said. "Still, the analysis shows that changes in strength of religious affiliation occur largely across time periods, suggesting more rapid, and potentially more ephemeral, forms of social change."

The study also found that though there has been a steady deterioration in strength of religious affiliation over time among Catholics, strength of affiliation was less strongly associated with church attendance among younger generations. This means that declines in Catholics' strength of affiliation do not necessarily lead to equivalent declines in their church attendance.

"That could be seen as good news and bad news for the Catholic Church," Schwadel said. "Younger Catholics are not being driven away from going to church, but they do still feel less strongly committed to their religion than they did a few decades ago."

The study also found:

  • Similar to evangelicals, African American Protestants report a high proportion of strongly affiliated members—about 57 percent in 2010.
  • Mainline Protestants' devoutness fell to lows of roughly 30 percent in the late 1970s and late 1980s before gradually climbing to 39 percent in 2010.
  • The proportion of Americans who say they adhere to no religion climbed from about 6 percent in the 1970s and 1980s to 16 percent in 2010. The increase is roughly equivalent in the decline of people who say they were "somewhat" or "not very strongly" affiliated with their religion over the same time period.

Explore further: Study: U.S. church attendance steady, but makeup of churchgoers changes

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2 / 5 (1) Nov 27, 2012
I hope no one tries to use this to imply that I wasn't devout.
4.1 / 5 (14) Nov 27, 2012
Same lyrics different tune. Styles come and go. Each gen wants to get to heaven a little differently you see. Religions lack sticking power without the ability to stone you for apostasy. Sharia is the new 'it'.

Xianity was doomed when they did away with the inquisition. You cant even burn witches any more did you know that? At least not in boston.
3.3 / 5 (6) Nov 27, 2012
One observation: The more educated a populace, the less religion has to do with how a society functions. I don't mean to devalue the benefits of religion.
4.6 / 5 (10) Nov 28, 2012
The more educated a populace, the less religion has to do with how a society functions.
Depends on how you define education. Hasidim spend a major part of their lives studying their religion. So do wahhabi. More so than we might spend getting doctorates. They consider much of what you call education worthless and defamatory. And really, is much of a liberal arts curriculum any more useful or relevant than catechism? Try discussing descartes or economics with these guys:

"...BOKO HARAM (Hausa: lit. "Western education is sinful"), is a jihadist militant organisation based in the northeast of Nigeria. It is an Islamist movement which strongly opposes man-made laws and modern science."

-They have all the education they need to KNOW that what the west has to teach them is evil.
I don't mean to devalue the benefits of religion.
-which are...? Religion endangers the world. There is nothing good that religion offers that cant be provided by secular institutions or drug therapy.
not rated yet Nov 28, 2012
Get past it, Ghost. Religion in some form will be around as long as humanity exists... and it may be the cause of the end of humanity.
Secular education is the way to temper the dangers of radical religious entities. That education is now being enhanced around the world through instant and diverse communications.
4.6 / 5 (10) Nov 28, 2012
Get past it, Ghost.
I dont think it will be allowed to end humanity. I dont think anything will be ALLOWED to end humanity. Indications are that the major religions were commandeered or created long ago to Serve rather than threaten because, as you say, religion is inevitable.

And yet it is so darn USEFUL isnt it? It has been used to conquer continents and destroy cultures. Could such a power be allowed to exist without Attempts to harness it for good instead of allowing it to do evil?

I think the state-sponsored religions all contain within themselves Mechanisms for self-destruction. Catholic celibacy invites pedophilia. Islam allows for the kind of violence which invites destruction. The hindu pantheon is just silly.

I think the Time to reject all religion is NOW and rational thinkers are being encouraged to speak out. Im just doing my part. Me and others.
1 / 5 (2) Dec 01, 2012
Blotto Blotto Blotto...there are many kinds of religions...and as you say, "Indications are that the major religions were commandeered or created long ago to Serve rather than threaten......"

But Blotto, you yourself are a practitioner of the religion of Hate which can only threaten that which is good and needs to bring about the indiscriminate destruction of ALL religions, whether good and of a positive nature, OR a religion of murder and injustice. You have already rejected good and positive religion with, for the most part, trumped-up charges which make YOU sound like a cranky old Scrooge who can't stand the sight of people being happy in their religious beliefs.

So, all that's left is the religion of murder and injustice...and that is the religion that you seem most fascinated by, even while you decry the injustice of their women having to pop out babies until they die. You are steeped in your Hate of Christianity and Judaism, but you seem to WELCOME the idea of Muslim hatred.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 02, 2012
Evangelicals, who have become more staunchly devout since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, Catholics now report the lowest proportion
Because the evangelicals are secular and fundamental form of Christianism, it could be interpreted in the way, that the western world secularizes itself in similar way, like the Islamic world (more fundamentalist Shi'ites gain there in similar way, like the Evangelicals).

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