Nearly a century after German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche first proclaimed “God is dead,” TIME magazine released a controversial cover on its April 8, 1966 edition with the related provocative question: “Is God dead?”
Both Nietzsche and TIME were exploring the prominence of God in people’s lives, and whether religiosity was on the decline in the society. Fifty years later, religion experts are still grappling with that question, though the context has drastically changed.
By many measures, religious practice and affiliation has greatly declined in the United States in the last 50 years. And yet spirituality, religion’s free-spirited sibling, appears to be as strong — if not stronger — than ever.
Here’s a look at some of the ways religious practice and belief have changed in the U.S. the last 50 years, and the trends that may continue to evolve:
Belief in God has wavered.
In 1966, some 98 percent of Americans said they believed in God, according to a Gallup survey. When Gallup and Pew Research surveyed Americans in 2014, the number had dropped to 86 percent and 89 percent respectively. Among the youngest adults surveyed by Pew, those born between 1990 and 1996, the share of believers was just 80 percent.
Some researchers argue that the number has decreased simply because Americans are more comfortable now than they were in the 60s admitting that they don’t believe in God.
Christianity has declined.
In 1948, Gallup found that about 91 percent of Americans identified as Christian. That number took a big dip in subsequent decades and continues to decline in recent years. From 2007 to 2014 alone, the percentage of Americans who identified as Christian fell from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent.
A new “religious” group has emerged.
Nearly one in three Americans under 35 today are religiously unaffiliated, meaning they do not identify with any formal religious group. As a whole, these “nones” comprise the second largest religious group in the U.S. behind evangelical Protestants.
Spirituality has taken center stage.
The term “spiritual but not religious” has emerged in recent years to describe how more and more Americans identify. Yes, religious affiliation has declined. But feelings of spiritual peace and wellbeing? Wonder about the universe? Both have significantly increased in the last decade across religious and nonreligious groups. Even among the unaffiliated and those who say religion isn’t particularly important to them, spiritual sentiment is strong and growing. And more than half of atheists say they regularly feel a sense of awe and wonder. Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of atheists who said they felt a deep sense of wonder about the universe on a weekly basis rose a full 17 points from 37 percent to 54 percent.
The importance of religion in Americans’ lives has shifted.
In 2007, 56 percent of Americans said religion was very important in their lives.Measures of this question from the 1950s and 1960s showed that at that time, over 70 percent of Americans said religion was very important in their daily lives.
Church attendance has declined.
In a 1937 Gallup Poll, 73 percent of Americans said they were church members. That percentage fell to around 70 percent in the ‘60s and ‘70s. By the 2000s, that number hovered around 60 percent.
More women are entering the clergy.
In many Christian and Jewish congregations, the number of clergywomen has greatly increased. According to data from the Association of Theological Schools, women today make up about a third of all seminary students. Thirty years ago, women made up less than a fifth of seminary students. This is due in large part to the fact that it wasn’t until after World War II that many of the larger and more prominent denominations started allowing women’s ordination. The United Methodist Church and what would later become the Presbyterian Church USA ordained their first women ministers in 1965. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Reform Judaism, and the Episcopal Church followed their lead in the early 1970s.
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