When it comes specifically to philanthropy, 57 percent of all Americans today believe that efforts to help the poor, comfort the needy, relieve disaster victims, and otherwise serve the common good would be just as prevalent “if there were no people of faith or religious organizations to do them,” according to a 2017 poll. Are they right? Karl Zinsmeister explores the answer in depth in the Winter edition of Philanthropy Magazine.
Karl Zinsmeister, The Philanthropy Roundtable
From its founding, the United States has been the most religious modern nation on earth. And that devotion has fueled many successes in character development, mutual aid, social reform, and national productivity.
Yet right from the beginning, American religious activity has been cyclical—flowing and ebbing and flowing again. Historians have identified up to four “great awakenings” in U.S. history, during which religious conviction surged. In between were periods of backsliding.
Today, we are in a period of decline. Steep decline.
Open antagonism toward faith is increasingly common in the U.S. There are now regular calls for crimping longstanding religious protections. New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer urged that the historic tax exemption for houses of worship end. The insistence that expressions of faith must be expunged from national discussions, from education, even from sporting and other public events, is on the rise. “There are a lot of nonbelievers who want religious views kept out of the public square entirely. That’s a big problem,” pastor Tim Keller said recently.
Underlying this resistance to religion is an assumption that faith is not important to the functioning of our nation. It has little social value, according to this view, and may even be harmful to citizens and the republic in various ways. Rising numbers of Americans believe that religious activity can be stopped or pushed entirely into private sanctums without any public cost.
Those Americans are mistaken.
American faith takes a tumble
As recently as 1972, 95 percent of Americans affirmed a religious affiliation. By 2016 that had fallen to 76 percent. The proportion of adults who attend religious services weekly is now down to 36 percent.
Younger Americans in particular are falling away. Just 27 percent of adults under 30 attend services weekly. And nearly four out of 10 people 18-29 years old now say they have no religious affiliation.
What does it mean to be religiously unaffiliated? Well, roughly six out of 10 of this group consider themselves secular, and three out of 10 are active atheists or agnostics. The small remainder identify as “religious” but with no particular faith. Most of the unaffiliated are suspicious of religion.