Baylor Researcher Refutes Reports of Religion’s Decline in America

September 25, 2014

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WACO, Texas (Sept. 25, 2014) — Reports of religion's demise have been greatly exaggerated, says Byron Johnson, Ph.D., co-director of Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion.
Close examination of data from the General Social Survey and other data sources show that across 40 years, church attendance has varied only slightly, Johnson wrote in The Heritage Foundation's recently published 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity: The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America. Headlines are "misleading, inaccurate and biased," Johnson wrote, referring to reports that millennials are leaving the faith of their parents; that young people under 30 are deserting the church; that women are rapidly falling away from religion; and that those without religious affiliations have doubled in recent decades.
Johnson challenges media accounts that suggest a consistent — if not dramatic — decline of faith in the nation's culture. He said that analyses of data from the General Social Survey* and data from the Baylor Religion Survey* show that:

  • Millennials, like the vast majority of Americans, consider themselves religious. Because options abound, however, many people switch churches for varied reasons, often to a different denomination from the one in which they were raised. "This change does not mean that they have departed the faith," Johnson said, noting that many change to more theologically conservative churches than those of their childhood. "Switching churches is a fascinating subject, and if anything, it's a marker of religious vitality, not decline."
  • While surveys "perennially find that younger people are less likely to attend church, reflecting the fact that many single young adults choose to sleep in on Sunday mornings once they are out on their own," church attendance rates recover once they marry and have children. However, recent research confirms if people do not marry, and if they do not have children, there is a real decline in church attendance — a finding that is particularly striking among the poor and less educated. On the other hand, many who do not attend church regularly, especially the elderly, consistently report high levels of religious commitment and belief.
  • In 2007, 38 percent of women, compared with 26 percent of men, described themselves as "very religious," according to the Baylor Religion Survey. Such a gender gap has been consistent since 1991, according to GSS data.
  • The number of atheists in America has remained steady at 4 percent since 1944, and church membership has reached an all-time high. Inaccurate perceptions exist in part because traditional surveys do not ask respondents enough questions to accurately sort out religious affiliations. Johnson noted that some of the "nones" — those who report no religious affiliation — indicated not only that they regularly attended church but even provided the name and address of their church. "The knee-jerk reaction that all "nones" are unaffiliated — or atheist — is false," Johnson said.
  • *The General Social Survey (GSS) is a sociological survey used to collect data on demographic characteristics and attitudes of residents of the United States. It is conducted with in-person interviews by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago of adults (18 and older) in randomly selected households. The survey was instituted in 1972, initially done annually, and since 1994 has been conducted every other year. The data collected is demographic information and respondents' opinions on issues ranging from government spending to race relations to the existence and nature of God. As of 2010, 28 national samples with 55,087 respondents and 5,417 variables had been collected.
    *The Baylor Religion Survey is a random sample of 1,714 individuals across the country. Designed by Baylor University scholars and conducted by The Gallup Organization, it includes more than 300 items dealing with religion and the attitudes, beliefs and values of the American public.


    Johnson, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor and founding director of Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is a Senior Fellow at The Witherspoon Institute of Princeton University and Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco. He is the author of "More God, Less Crime" and recognized as an authority on the scientific study of religion, including recent publications examining the impact of faith-based programs on recidivism reduction and prisoner reentry. He is working with the Gallup Organization on studies exploring religion and spirituality in the world.


    Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.


    Launched in August 2004, the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) exists to initiate, support and conduct research on religion, involving scholars and projects spanning the intellectual spectrum: history, psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, political science, epidemiology, theology and religious studies. The institute's mandate extends to all religions, everywhere, and throughout history, and embraces the study of religious effects on prosocial behavior, family life, population health, economic development and social conflict. While always striving for appropriate scientific objectivity, ISR scholars treat religion with the respect that sacred matters require and deserve.