By Jessica Grose
Published:June 21, 2023
-New York Times
In previous newsletters about Americans falling away from religion, I’ve talked about why so many Americans’ religious identities now fall in the category known as “nones” when, just a half-century ago, nearly all Americans had some kind of affiliation. (It’s complicated and multifaceted, but to summarize, it’s largely a combination of Christianity’s association with far-right politics and the fact that being unreligious has become more socially acceptable over time.)
But it’s not just how Americans identify that has greatly shifted. In their new book “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?” Jim Davis and Michael Graham with Ryan Burge argue that the most dramatic change may be in regular attendance at houses of worship. “We are currently in the middle of the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country,” they postulate, because “about 15 percent of American adults living today (around 40 million people) have effectively stopped going to church, and most of this dechurching has happened in the past 25 years.”
While the authors find that there is some variation in the rates at which different demographic groups are dechurching (Hispanic Americans are dechurching at the lowest rate, for example), every group is trending away from traditional worship. As Davis, Graham and Burge put it: “No theological tradition, age group, ethnicity, political affiliation, education level, geographic location or income bracket escaped the dechurching in America.”
The authors focus on Christians in part because there are far more Christians in America than there are people of any other faith background. But the book also has an aim that I don’t have: It argues for bringing dechurched Americans back to regular worship. (The three men who worked on the book are all pastors.) The data they shared with me suggests that “dechurching” is particularly prevalent among Buddhists and Jews, with nearly half not attending worship services regularly, and around 30 percent of most Christian denominations and around 20 percent of Mormons and Orthodox Christians. (There weren’t enough Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in the sample for statistical certainty.)
When I queried Times readers about moving away from religion — over 7,000 responded — I asked whether they missed anything about traditional religious observance and, if they did, what rituals had replaced regular church, temple or mosque attendance for them. (A reminder here that these readers aren’t a demographically representative sample of Americans — for instance, while there was a good deal of geographic, racial and religious diversity among the respondents overall, almost all of the readers I talked to were college educated.)
Some people, usually self-described atheists and agnostics, said they didn’t miss anything and were happy to be rid of anything resembling worship. Unsurprisingly, those groups had the highest rate of dechurching of all: 94 percent for atheists and 88 percent for agnostics.
But many said they did miss aspects of traditional attendance, and often these people still believed in God or certain aspects of their previous faith traditions. They’d sought replacements for traditional worship, and the most common were spending time in nature, meditation and physical activity — basically anything that got them out of their own heads and the anxieties of the material world. Kathy Keller, 60, who lives in Michigan and left the Catholic Church because of its child sex abuse scandals and intrusion into health care that adversely affects women, has had a fairly representative experience. She said that while she no longer goes to church regularly, she still believes in a higher power and prays occasionally. “I try to spend Sunday morning outside appreciating the glory of nature,” she said.
Others are trying to forge new kinds of religious paths for themselves. One example is the trend of mostly younger Americans who are “deconstructing” Christianity, and as my newsroom colleague Ruth Graham explained this year, “deconstruction has a broad range of definitions and outcomes, from understanding more about a faith once accepted uncritically to full abandonment of religious belief.”
The process of deconstructing Christianity, at least the way many creators express it on TikTok and Instagram, often begins with questioning the conservative racial, gender, political and sexual attitudes of the churches they were raised in — an approach that has particular relevance right now: Just last week, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to bar women from its pastorate.
Donnell McLachlan, 29, who lives in Chicago, has been sharing the story of his deconstruction on TikTok @donnellwrites, where he has nearly 250,000 followers, since 2021. He was brought up in what he describes as a small Black church on the South Side of Chicago in the Pentecostal and Apostolic traditions. Though he says the church did a lot for him and his family when he was growing up, he came to feel that it was a faith rooted in fear and judgment.