Rather than upending established patterns, the pandemic accelerated trends of change in religious participation.
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A new survey conducted by the Survey Center on American Life and a team of researchers from the University of Chicago is measuring the impact of the pandemic on faith practice in the US. The study, the 2022 American Religious Benchmark Survey, found that religious identity remained largely stable, even as religious attendance was significantly lowered.
The team had already been taking surveys prior to March 2020, when the pandemic began, and were able to compare these data to the more recent 2022 survey. It should be noted that the same respondents were questioned in both surveys, in order to better understand what changes occurred during the pandemic years.
The survey found the religious identity had not significantly changed due to the pandemic. Aside from White Mainline Christians, who dropped from 17% to 16% of American adults, and Hispanic Catholics, who similarly fell from 6% to 5%, each denomination remained stable. White Evangelical Christians (14%), White Catholics (10%), Black Protestants (9%), and members of the Jewish faith (1%) each remained at the same level as they were pre-pandemic by Spring of 2022.
It should be noted that while the percentages remained the same, there was some movement between the religions due to conversion. It was found that 19% of respondents had changed their religious affiliation during the pandemic years. This included 6% of “nones” reportedly finding their faith, as well as 5% of the religiously affiliated abandoning theirs.
Attendance at religious services was found to have been most affected by the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that 75% of Americans attended religious services at least once per year, with 26% of this majority attending multiple times per month. At the same time, just less than a quarter of Americans reported never attending services.
By Spring 2022, however, rates of attendance had fallen by about 10 points. Now only around two thirds (~66%) report attending religious services at least once per year, while the number of those who never attend has risen to a solid third (33%). Furthermore, it was found that Americans who seldom attended services were the most likely to have fallen off.
The survey next sought to identify the groups that saw the greatest declines in religious attendance during the pandemic. Those who identify as liberals were found to be the group most likely to forgo attending religious events, from 31% to 46%. Similar figures were found in the group that was never married, who went from 30% not attending to 44%. Those aged 18-29 were not far behind, going from 30% to 43%.
While these were the groups that showed the largest decline in attendance, it should be noted that every surveyed group saw some level of decreased attendance. Men were 6% less likely to attend services and women were 8% less likely. Even those in the group aged 65 and older said they were 3% less likely to attend services than before the pandemic.
Young adults were the group most affected by the pandemic, with those who have firm faiths growing stronger and those with little interest falling away. More than 40% of young adult respondents reported a significant change in their religious participation compared to pre-pandemic. Broken down, 30% of young adults attend religious services less frequently than before the pandemic, while only 12% said they participate more.