Scholars of religion and scholars of American society (including me) have conventionally described the United States as religiously “exceptional” compared to other affluent Christian nations. The claim has at least two features: First, since at least the mid-nineteenth century, Americans have been notably more religious than other westerners. Second, the U.S. has not experienced the decrease in individual piety (“secularization” in this discussion) that seems to have accompanied “modernization” in much of the affluent West. Indeed, observers have often been struck that, paradoxically, the U.S. has been at the same time the most “modern” society in the West and the most religious.
This description has, of course, been repeatedly challenged. Two new articles strongly argue that, at minimum, the U.S. has been experiencing “secularization” in the last several decades, so that, if American faith ever was immune to the supposedly secularizing forces of modern life, it is no longer.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Going to Church
Michael Hout and I have, even though we are aligned with the conventional, exceptionalist view, contributed to critiques of exceptionalism with our research showing that, since about 1990, an increasing percentage of Americans, when asked by pollsters what their religion is, answer “none.” (See these 2013 and 2014 posts.) We argued, however, that the increase in “nones” had much more to do with a rejection of institutional religion’s seeming connection to right-wing politics than it had to do with changes in faith. (We did warn, however, that if alienation from the church went on long enough it could well undermine faith as well.)
The two new articles focus largely on attendance at religious services as the key marker of religiosity. David Voas and Mark Chaves compare trends by generation in reported religious service attendance in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to trends by generation in the United States. They find that in all these cases, including the American one, declining rates of reported attendance from the earliest to the more recent ones. (For example, about 50 percent of Americans born around 1940 reported attending church at least monthly when they were interviewed at 30 years of age; about 40 percent of Americans born around 1980 reported attending at least monthly when they were interviewed at around 30.) Similarly, smaller percentages of recent than of earlier generations report coming from families that attended often. Voas and Chaves also show a similar decline across generations in the percentage of survey respondents who say that they have “no doubts” about God’s existence. The authors conclude that “religious commitment is weakening from one generation to the next in the countries with which the United States has most in common, and generational differences are the main driver of the aggregate decline. . . . The same pattern of cohort replacement is behind American religious decline.”
Philip S. Brenner reviewed studies of reported service attendance in Christian countries around the world (taking into account, by the way, that people, especially Americans it seems, exaggerate their frequency of attendance). He reports major differences among western societies, with people in predominantly Protestant nations, like the Scandinavians, reporting stably low or declining rates and those in predominantly Catholic nations reporting higher but also declining rates. The U.S. data also suggest high but slowly declining attendance. This “view further reduces American religious exceptionalism,” Brenner concludes.
These two studies are, indeed, persuasive. However, a few reservations can be raised in defense of American religious exceptionalism:
One, Voas and Chaves concede that “none of these declines [in American religiosity] is happening fast, and levels of religious involvement in the United States remain high by world standards.” They insist that, at least, there is downward movement and it seems to have the same form–generational replacement–as elsewhere. But their trend lines would leave America exceptional for quite a while.
Two, the focus on attendance at services and on explicit attention to endorsing religion–as in the “nones” analysis–is to focus on Americans’ commitments to current formal religious institutions, which, like many formal American institutions, have come under skepticism in the last generation or two. Other indicators of faith seem to show a persisting American exceptionalism. One of my favorite such indicators is a question that the World Values Survey has asked around the globe for decades: “Here is a list of qualities that children can be encouraged to learn at home. Which, if any, do you consider to be especially important?” Respondents are then shown a list of 11 qualities, such as independence, thrift, and “religious faith.” In the latest iteration of the survey (2010-14) the percentage of respondents in comparable western countries picking “religious faith” as an especially important quality ranged from 4 (Sweden) to 16 percent (New Zealand). The percent of Americans picking “religious faith”? 43 percent! And that was up 4 points from 30 years earlier.
Third, the “modernization-creates-secularization” thesis holds that as societies become wealthier, more urban, more structured by science and technology, and their people more physically and financially secure, the hold of faith weakens. The U.S. has experienced that sort of structural change pretty steadily for at least 150 years. And yet, religious involvement has ebbed and flowed over all those generations within a range that generally made the U.S. an exceptionally religious country (or at least, exceptionally for a predominantly Protestant country) throughout that history. Maybe American religious exceptionalism has indeed started to fade in the last couple of decades. Maybe not. We probably won’t be sure for another decade or two.
 Voas and Chaves also examine reported religious affiliation. But answers about religious affiliation mean something different in most other western nations (even the Anglo ones of their study) than reports of religious identity in American surveys. In nations with official state churches, like the Church of England, or official lists of recognized and subsidized churches, as in France, being “of a religion” is more like a identity card statement than a statement of personal commitment to a religious institution.
 In WVS Wave 7 (2010-14), the comparable western countries were Australia, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, and Sweden. From 1981-84 to 2010-14, the percentages giving “religious faith” answers for them dropped an average of 5 points. For the U.S., the percentage jumped from 39 to 55 between ~1982 to ~1992 and then declined to 43 by 2010-14, still 4 points more than the first sample. You can run the data yourself at http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org .