Since its founding, the United States has been the most religious modern nation on earth. Religiosity helped hone the American character, patterns of mutual aid, and national productivity.
Today, however, belief is in decline, and many of those social benefits may disappear over time. In one generation, the portion of Americans affirming a religious affiliation has fallen from 95 percent to 76 percent. Just one out of three adults now attends religious services weekly. Young Americans, especially, are falling away: nearly four out of 10 adults ages 18-29 say that they have no religious affiliation.
Even the nonreligious might worry about this shift, because society benefits from religiously inspired humanitarian behavior. Those with a religious affiliation give several times as much money to charity as other Americans. The ratio of Americans doing volunteer work in a typical week is 45 percent among weekly churchgoers and 27 percent among non–churchgoers. Decades of research have shown that a greater proportion of religious people get involved in community groups. They have stronger links with their neighbors and are more engaged with their families. They adopt troubled kids at three times the rate of other Americans, and they provide a disproportionate share of the assistance given to ex-convicts, refugees, the homeless, and others.
Of all the “associational” activity that takes place in the US, almost half is church–related, according to Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. Secularism, by contrast, “makes people very fragmented,” theologian Timothy Keller recently told Philanthropy magazine. “They might talk about community, but they aren’t sacrificing their own personal goals for community, as religion requires you to do.”