“In the U.S., the decline of Christianity continues at a rapid pace,” read the press release attached to a Pew Research Center survey of American religiosity. But Ross Douthat cautions against jumping to conclusions about the triumph of secularism: first, because various forms of post-Christian spirituality and religiosity seem to be rushing to fill the gap and, second, because the signs of shrinking Christian affiliation are of a particular kind. He writes:
The Pew survey shows a definite decline in weekly churchgoing, alongside the growing disaffiliation of people who once would have been loosely attached to churches and denominations—cultural Catholics, Christmas-and-Easter Methodists, . . . and the like. But recent Gallup numbers indicate that reported weekly and almost-weekly church attendance has only “edged down” lately, falling to 38 percent in 2017 from 42 percent in 2008—a smaller drop than the big decline in affiliation reported by Pew. And long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s—and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom.
[Some sociologists have] argued that the recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.
That resilience should not be entirely comforting for Christian churches, since both their everyday work and their cultural influence depends on reaching beyond their core adherents, and inspiring a mix of sympathy and interest among people who aren’t at worship every week. Indeed, combining an enduring core of belief with a general falling-away could make the Christian position permanently embattled, tempting the pious to paranoia and misguided alliances while the wider culture becomes more anti-clerical, more like 19th-century secular liberalism in its desire to batter down the redoubts of traditional belief.