Is diversity making U.S. less religious?: By Daniel Cox

In the United States, diversity has generally been considered an asset. It is frequently cited by public figures as both a source of national pride and a worthy ambition. It is an oft-stated goal of Fortune 500 companies, private colleges and entire sectors of the U.S. economy. And even if Americans don’t claim much diversity in their own social networks, few believe that our differences are not something to be celebrated. At one point it was even argued that America’s religious vitality hinged on its diversity — greater competition between places of worship would contribute to a more vibrant religious culture. However, new evidence suggests that religious pluralism could work in the opposite direction — undermining the vitality of America’s religious communities.

The American religious landscape is transforming rapidly. At one time, religious diversity meant Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian. Today, it encompasses a multiplicity of religious traditions such as Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism, as well as an increasing variety of noninstitutional belief systems such as humanism, skepticism, atheism and subjective spirituality. Racial and ethnic shifts have also changed the face of Christianity. The U.S. was once a predominantly white Christian country, but fewer than half of Americans (45 percent) identify as white Christian today.

We don’t know for sure that America’s religious pluralism is causing a drop in religious vitality — there are reasons to think the two might simply be related — but there are a number of different ways diversity might erode commitment. The practical effect of rising religious diversity is to expose Americans to ideas and views that could challenge their religious beliefs. This weakening of America’s religious consensus means there is far less social pressure to conform to religious norms. For young people coming of age today, America’s Christian heritage is no longer a given, and being Christian is not viewed as a critical component of national identity.

Geographically, states with greater religious variety tend to exhibit lower levels of overall religiosity. No state is more religiously uniform than Mississippi. Half of the state’s population identifies as Baptist and 54 percent are evangelical Protestant. It’s probably no coincidence that Mississippi is also one of the few states with constitutions that prohibit atheists from serving in elected office. According to Gallup’s 2016 rankings of the most and least religious states, Mississippi has the honor of being the most religious state in the country. In contrast, Oregon ranks high in terms of religious diversity — no one religious tradition makes up more than 20 percent of the state’s population — and falls near the bottom in Gallup’s ranking. Only four states are less religious.

Diversity within our immediate social networks may also serve to weaken our ties to a religious community or strengthen our resolve to remain unattached. Americans who report greater religious diversity in their social networks demonstrate much less regular religious involvement. A new analysis based on a Public Religion Research Institute study of Americans’ social networks found that Americans who report greater religious diversity among their close friends and family are less likely to engage in religious activities. Sixty-three percent of Americans who have religiously diverse social networks say they seldom or never attend religious services, compared with only about one-third (32 percent) of those who count coreligionists as their closest friends and family members. This is true for religious Americans as well. In fact, even when controlling for different demographic attributes, including religious identity, Americans with more religiously diverse social networks demonstrate lower rates of religious participation and are less apt to say religion is important in their lives than other Americans.

Religious diversity could even subvert our initial exposure to religion. Religiously mixed marriages are more common than ever, and Americans raised by parents of different faiths report much lower levels of religious activity in childhood than those raised in religiously unified households. Nearly 6 in 10 (58 percent) Americans raised by parents who shared the same religious background say they attended religious services weekly or more often. Only 40 percent of Americans raised in religiously mixed households report attending services regularly as children.

Americans raised in mixed religious households are also less likely to have prayed regularly with their family and to have attended Sunday school.

Of course, it is possible that religious diversity is not directly precipitating a decline in religious identity and engagement. Parents of different faith backgrounds might de-emphasize religious activities in an effort to reduce conflict in the home — a phenomenon supported by social network theory — but it might also be that people who marry outside their particular denomination or tradition care less about their religious identity in the first place. Religiously diverse states might attract more secular residents because they offer a more accepting and tolerant religious climate.

And yet, it is difficult to imagine that weakening social pressure and greater exposure to diverse religious perspectives, including those that are critical of religion, would have no effect on the decisions we make about our own religious lives.

Diversity is now simply a fact of American religious life. It does not signal the end of religion, but it may make it easier for Americans to abstain from religious involvement and encourage other types of spiritual and philosophical explorations. It may also make atheists more willing to “come out,” something that can be exceedingly difficult, especially in very religious communities.

Organized religion has never been in jeopardy of dying out due to a single traumatic event. Instead, it is a cumulative series of unanswered challenges that pose the greatest risk. Religious diversity might not represent a dramatic threat to religion, but it may represent another small hole in an already sinking ship.

Daniel Cox writes for Public Religion Research Institute and specializes in survey research, youth politics and religion. He has co-authored several academic book chapters on topics relating to religious polarization and gay and lesbian issues in the black church.

Freedom From Religion Foundation