Church attendance drops

January 11, 2000

Church attendance drops

Church attendance drops

ANN ARBOR—Attendance at religious services is declining in the United States and many other industrialized nations, according to a University of Michigan study. But 46 percent of the Americans surveyed say that they often think about the meaning and purpose of life, and fully half rate the importance of God in their lives as “10” on a ten-point scale.

The study was conducted by researchers at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic survey and research organization, using data from three waves of the World Values Surveys, conducted in 1981, 1990-91, and 1995-98. These surveys of nationally representative samples of the adult population in 65 societies were funded by a variety of public and private sources, including the National Science Foundation. The total number of people interviewed was 165,594.

To be published in the February issue of the American Sociological Review, the study is co-authored by Ronald F. Inglehart, a political scientist at the ISR, and Wayne E. Baker, a sociologist at the ISR and professor at the U-M Business School.

“Although church attendance is declining in nearly all advanced industrial societies, spiritual concerns more broadly defined are not,” says Inglehart. “In fact, in most industrial societies, a growing share of the population is spending time thinking about the meaning and purpose of life.”

Among the 20 advanced industrial democracies surveyed, 16 show declining rates of church attendance. France and Ireland show no change, while Northern Ireland and Great Britain show modest increases. In the United States, which has by far the highest rate of church attendance among industrialized nations, the percentage of adults attending religious services at least once a month declined from 60 percent in 1981 to 55 percent in 1998. This compares with a drop of 18 percent in Switzerland, and 15 percent in Australia and Spain.

Among ex-communist societies, the pattern is quite different, Inglehart and Baker found. Five of the seven societies surveyed—Hungary, Latvia, Bulgaria, Belarus and Russia—have rising percentages of church attendance. In developing nations, the pattern is mixed, with roughly equal numbers of countries showing rising and falling rates of church attendance.

To measure the subjective importance of religious beliefs, the researchers asked two questions. One question was, “How important is God in your life?” The percentage choosing “10,” the highest score possible, declined by only 1 percentage point in industrialized nations, and increased in all the ex-communist and most of the developing, low-income societies.

Concern for the meaning and purpose of life became stronger in most advanced industrial societies, the researchers found. To assess this aspect of spirituality, respondents were asked, “How often, if at all, do you think about the meaning and purpose of life?” The alternative answers were often, sometimes, rarely, and never. The proportion saying that they often thought about the meaning and purpose of life increased in 26 of the 37 societies surveyed.

This increase was most pronounced in the advanced industrial democracies, with Australia, West Germany, South Korea, Italy, and the Netherlands all showing an increase of at least 10 percent. While the percentage of U.S. respondents saying they often thought about the meaning and importance of life fell by 2 percent to 46 percent in 1998, that percentage is still second only to East Germany’s, which increased from 40 percent to 47 percent.

“A decline in the prevalence of traditional religious behavior characterizes industrialization, but not necessarily the post-industrial phase,” the researchers note. “The need for security is not the only attraction of religion. People have always sought answers to such questions as Where do we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? The need for answers may be especially acute in the face of disaster, but it does not die out in post-industrial society. Spiritual concerns will probably always be part of the human outlook. The established churches today may be on the wrong wavelength for most people in post-industrial societies, but new theologies, such as the theology of environmentalism, or New Age beliefs, are emerging to fill an expanding niche. With the rise of post-industrial society, allegiance to the established religious institutions continues to decline, but spiritual concerns do not.”

Visit the World Values Surveys’ Web site at for more information.

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world’s oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information.

Institute for Social ResearchAmerican Sociological Reviewchurch attendanceHow important is Godhttp://wvs.isr.umich.eduSurvey of Consumer Attitudes