THE much-touted decline of religion in the United States and the consequent secularization of American society is a myth. On the contrary, Americans' basic religious beliefs, church membership, and church attendance have changed almost not at all since the 1930s.
Those are the conclusions of two studies published in 1989: one by pollster George Gallup Jr. and journalist Jim Castelli, and the other by Roman Catholic sociologist, priest, and novelist Andrew Greeley. The reports are based on extensive polling data conducted by a number of organizations over several decades.
``For all the talk in the mass media about changes, the most striking phenomenon is stability,'' Fr. Greeley says. ``Americans continue to be churchgoing, believing people.'
According to the book by Mr. Gallup and Mr. Castelli, ``The People's Religion: American Faith in the '90's'' (New York & London: Macmillan):
Ninety-four percent of Americans believe in God.
Nine in 10 Americans pray.
Eight in 10 Americans believe in a final Judgment Day.
Eight in 10 Americans believe God still works miracles.
Seven in 10 Americans believe in life after death.
Gallup Organization data on church attendance reveal that little has changed in the past 50 years. In 1937, 41 percent of Americans polled said they attended church in a typical week. This bottomed out in 1940, when only 37 percent said they attended church once a week, and peaked in 1955 and 1958, when 49 percent went to church. A gradual slide brought the percentage down to 42 percent by 1969, and it has hovered between 40 percent and 42 percent ever since. In 1988, 42 percent of Americans attended church in a typical week.
In addition, church membership, which was 73 percent in 1937, stayed relatively stable at 65 percent or more in the 1980s.
Within this basic stability, however, there have been two important shifts: Roman Catholic church attendance fell off sharply in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And Protestants have been moving from the ``mainline'' churches - usually defined as Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) - to other Protestant bodies, some fundamentalist or charismatic.
Greeley's book, ``Religious Change in America'' (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), finds that ``the decline in churchgoing in the late 1960s and early 1970s affected only Catholics and was evenly distributed among all age groups.''
Gallup polling shows that while more than 74 percent of Catholics attended church weekly in 1958, by 1978 the number had leveled off at 52 percent. Gallup and Castelli report that in 1988, Catholic church attendance dropped to 48 percent.
During the same period, Protestant church attendance remained fairly stable: 44 percent in 1958, 40 percent in 1978, and 45 percent in 1985.
The reason for the dramatic decline in Catholic church attendance, Greeley says, was the church's teaching against birth control. But about two-thirds of Catholic churchgoers, faced with a decision between leaving the church and accepting the birth-control doctrine, chose neither. ``They would remain regular churchgoers, but on their own terms, rejecting the official teaching, but still showing up at church every week or nearly every week,'' he writes.
Both studies find that religious affiliation and church attendance rates follow a ``life cycle.'' Survey data show that young people 18 to 24 are generally the least religious group in the nation at any given time. But by age 25, as people marry and begin having children, they also begin returning to religion. And as people get older, the percentage of religious participation increases markedly.
This life-cycle effect may mean that as the baby boomers grow older, Gallup and Castelli write, ``church attendance could dramatically increase in the coming decade.''
On the question of denominational change, the two studies diverge somewhat. Both agree that Protestants are shifting away from mainline denominations to churches such as the Baptists, Mormons, Assemblies of God, and others.
But Gallup and Castelli say the proportion of Americans identifying themselves as Catholics has risen dramatically from 20 percent in 1947 to 28 percent in 1987. The percentage of Protestants fell from 69 percent to 57 percent, while the number of those saying they were Jewish fell from 5 percent to 2 percent. Mormons increased from less than 1 percent to 2 percent. Those with no religion rose from 6 percent to 9 percent after dipping in the 1960s.
Greeley says, however, that National Opinion Research Center (NORC) and other survey data do not show a Protestant decrease or a Catholic increase. NORC surveys show that 25 percent of those polled said they were Catholic in 1963, 1972, and 1974, he says, and General Social Survey (GSS) polls ever since have shown the same percentage.
The Gallup data also show sharp decreases in the percentage of Americans who say they were adherents of mainline denominations: In 1967, 14 percent said they were Methodists; by 1987, this had fallen to 9 percent. Lutherans dropped slightly from 7 percent to 6 percent; Presbyterians fell dramatically from 6 percent to 3 percent; and Episcopalians from 3 percent to 2 percent. The nonmainline Baptists made up 21 percent of respondents in 1967 and 20 percent two decades later.
But the GSS data also do not support the theory that the percentage of mainline Protestants in the US population (apart from Methodists) has dropped precipitously, Greeley writes. In 1975, the GSS found that 13 percent of Americans said they were Methodists, while 11 percent said so in 1985. Lutherans held firm over the 10-year period at 8 percent, Presbyterians at 5 percent, and Episcopalians at 3 percent. The percentage of those claiming no religion held steady at 3 percent.
Since the GSS began in 1972, however, the mainline denominations have decreased from 43 percent to 40 percent of all Protestants, while nonmainline groups have increased from 57 percent to 60 percent. And while 43 percent of American Protestants were raised in mainline churches, 1 in 5 has moved to a nonmainline church, Greeley reports. A quarter of those raised Methodist, 20 percent of those raised Presbyterian, 14 percent of Episcopalians, and 11 percent of Lutherans have switched to nonmainline churches. Only 1 in 7 nonmainline Protestants has switched to a mainline church.
Greeley says he has no explanation for the difference in the Gallup and other survey findings. ``Virtually all the other surveys find less Catholics and more Protestants than Gallup,'' he says. ``I am skeptical of a great increase in Catholics - it doesn't show up in church membership figures or at the parish level.''
Both studies debunk another myth, Greeley notes. ``Neither Gallup nor we find a rise in the percentage of fundamentalists,'' he says. A 1987 study by Tom Smith of NORC shows that fundamentalist groups include about one-third of the US population.
What about the future? Gallup and Castelli, looking at the percentage of young people in various denominations, say the US will be less Protestant, more Catholic, and more Mormon. Among mainline Protestants, all denominations except the Disciples of Christ are likely to decrease their share of the population, they say, whereas the nonmainline Baptists and other Protestants will increase. The proportion of Jews in the population will also decrease, while the percentage of people not affiliated with a religion is likely to go up.
``Americans will continue to be unique,'' Gallup and Castelli write, ``with an unmatched combination of high levels of education and high levels of religious belief in society.''