Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Empty Churches | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Several rows of church pews, facing the decorative altar in the distance, with very few people seated in the pews, with the words "Empty Churches" and "Non-affiliation in America" written in large block letters on the bottom.
Book Cover for Empty Churches: Non-Affiliation in America, edited by James L. Heft and Jan E. Stets. Image via Oxford University Press.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of religion in 21st-century America is the rapid growth of those who are not affiliated with any religious tradition. As Jan Stets notes in the introduction to Empty Churches: Non-affiliation in America (Oxford, 2021), survey data reveals that between 1974 and 1991 the percentage of the religiously non-affiliated remained steady at approximately 7 percent. Then it started to rise, reaching 14 percent in 2000, 18 percent in 2010, and 23 percent in 2014. And – in data that has emerged since the writing of Empty Churches – in 2019 26 percent of all Americans described themselves as agnostic, atheist, or nothing in particular.

Unimaginable to scholars of religion three decades ago, the United States seems to be headed in the direction of Europe.

A few years ago Stets (Professor and Director of the Social Psychology Research Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside) and Fr. James Heft, S.M. (just-retired President of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California) embarked on a collaborative project to help us understand this phenomenon. Toward that end they gathered 17 scholars of religion and professionals in the field who would use their expertise to reflect on and produce original research on the rapid rise of religious non-affiliation in America.

The result is the just-published Empty Churches. I am pleased to have a chapter in this volume, which is entitled: “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right.” In this essay I make the case that

the quantitative and qualitative evidence strongly support the argument that the Christian Right has been a primary reason for the remarkable rise of the religious nones in the United States since the 1990s. And while it may be too early to say with certainty, it is very easy to imagine . . . that the post-2016 data will reveal that the Christian Right is driving even greater numbers of Americans to declare that they have no religious preference. Whether or not irony is the right word to apply here, one cannot escape noticing that a movement that so stridently opposes the secularizing of America is helping to accelerate this secularization. (186)

This Thursday night (March 11) at 6.30 pm Pacific Time there will be a webinar on Empty Churches. Participants include sociologist Nancy Ammerman from Boston University (“The Many Meanings of Non-Affiliation”), philosopher Bernard Prusak from King’s College (“Religious Non-Affiliation and Objections of Conscience”), and myself. After our brief presentations there will be time for questions and answers. 

Registration is free – here’s the link – and we would love to have you join us!