April 7, 2016

Is God Dead? No, but belief has declined slightly

Credit: Time
Credit: Time

Fifty years ago this month, Time magazine published one of its most famous and controversial covers. Splashed in bold red print across a black background was a short, simple and yet intensely provocative question: “Is God Dead?”

Without providing a definitive answer, the authors of the piece, dated April 8, 1966, seemed to imply that, in many parts of the world, the idea of an omnipotent creator could be heading for history’s dustbin. Even in the United States – where, the authors acknowledged, faith in God seemed nearly universal – many churches and seminaries were slowly dispensing with the traditional notion of the divine in favor of a God who was more symbolic than real.

But a half century after the Time article was first published, a recent Pew Research Center survey shows that belief in God is strong in the United States. Indeed, according to our 2014 Religious Landscape Study, nearly nine-in-ten American adults say they believe in God or a universal spirit. 

Declining Share of Americans Express Absolutely Certain Believe in GodTo be sure, the share of people in the United States who say they believe in the Almighty has dropped a bit recently, from 92% in 2007 (when the Center’s first Religious Landscape Study was released) to 89% in 2014. And among the youngest adults surveyed (born between 1990 and 1996), the share of believers is 80%.

In recent years, there also have been small declines in other measures of religious commitment. For instance, between 2007 and 2014, the share of Americans who say they attend church or another house of worship at least once a week has dropped from 39% to 36%. During the same period, the share of Americans who say they pray daily also has dropped 3 percentage points, from 58% to 55%.

Perhaps more strikingly, the number of people who no longer consider themselves to be part of any religious denomination or tradition has risen dramatically in recent decades. Between 2007 and 2014, for example, the share of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated jumped from about 16% to almost 23% of the adult population. However, it’s also important to point out that a majority of these “nones” (61%) still say they believe in God or a universal spirit.

As part of its argument that theism might begin to decline dramatically (even in the United States), the 1966 article posited that the need for man to worship an omnipotent creator will disappear as science increasingly explains the mysteries of the universe, and as knowledge and technology shield us from disease, starvation and life’s other harsh realities. Indeed, the Time article stated that “faith in God survived scientific attack only when churches came to realize that the religious language of the Bible is … ‘poetry-plus, rather than science-minus.’”

But recent Pew Research Center polling suggests that about seven-in-ten (68%) U.S. adults did not see a conflict between science and their own religious beliefs. And for those who see a clash, religion often takes precedence. Consider, for instance, the public’s views on the theory of evolution as outlined by British naturalist Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago. While an overwhelming majority of scientists accept Darwinian evolution through natural selection, only a third of American adults (33%) do so. Roughly six-in-ten Americans (including creationists and those who believe that life has evolved over time through a process guided by a Supreme Being) see an active and creative higher power behind the origins and development of human life.

So while the U.S. may be slightly less religious now than in the past, religion’s place in the nation’s collective consciousness has remained strong – certainly much stronger than the authors of the Time article, and most of the experts they cited, seemed to predict.

Topics: Religion and Society, Religious Affiliation, Religious Beliefs and Practices

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Gregory A. Smith

    is an associate director of research at Pew Research Center.

20 Comments

  1. Anonymous7 months ago

    In 1966 I was living in New York City when this edition of TIME magazine was published. Today, I still have my copy. Why did a keep it? I kept it, because I knew that the authos were wrong and thas some day someone would remember it. Thank you for your article on this topic. For me and for many like myself He is very much alive, as well as His SON—Jesus Christ—and the Holy Spirit. This is the only TRINITY guiding us today and will be with us until the end of time. It is up to us to be true disciples and show the world how much HE loves us by loving one another as He loves us.

  2. Dewey Blieve8 months ago

    It takes way more faith to believe in Evolution and everything that man has decided had to occur to accommodate evolution, than to believe in an almighty Creator who runs the show.

    1. Anonymous8 months ago

      Well, if you haven’t studied and understood the Scientific theory, then that’s what you’ll be saying.

      1. Anonymous8 months ago

        “Well, if you haven’t studied and understood the Scientific theory, then that’s what you’ll be saying.”

        It just shows the depth of your intelligence, making ridiculous statements like this. Whatever brought us here was created by something. But then you are too stupid to understand that ultimately that something did not not have to be created because your logic cant extend beyond a beginning, middle and end. Ever heard of a circle?

    2. Anonymous8 months ago

      that may be Dewey, but only because religions of all sorts have been around for much longer than modern and effective science. I believe its a psychological thing. It’s more comfortable to believe in something that has been rooted in cultures for thousands of years than accept something 150 years old.

  3. Dewey Blieve8 months ago

    It’s not that’s people who don’t believe in God, don’t believe in anything.
    They believe in nothing.

  4. Anonymous8 months ago

    Looks like we need more teen virgin births.

    1. Anonymous8 months ago

      No. One was plenty.

  5. Anonymous8 months ago

    It always seems this God is never a god of native or non middle eastern concept. it seems that the aztec or Japanese concepts of god or creation are just imagination.. and its always only one god for true believers because multiple gods theory is unacceptable to there programming.. the sooner the human race dispenses with this delusion we created and focuses on reality the better.

  6. Anonymous8 months ago

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. Seneca
    Just as true today as it was 2000 years ago.

  7. Luciano Tanto8 months ago

    dead? never born.

    1. Anonymous8 months ago

      Very true. God is an eternal being and therefore never born.

  8. Andrew Hidas8 months ago

    So much depends on terms, and how one personifies—or doesn’t—the notion of “God” and “universal spirit.” Many people consider themselves religious and believe and live within some notion of “universal spirit,” but do not apply that to an actual responsive, thinking being who answers prayers and acts in the world. They are certainly not atheists, but not theists either. We might call them “religious non-theists.” It would give a more rounded picture of religious understanding and practice in the U.S., I think, if we more clearly differentiated between multiple shades and interpretations of God language rather than framing these surveys as a simple yes/no on “belief in God…”

  9. Anonymous8 months ago

    The demise of the ‘church’ is a result, in the main, of the constant and biased opposition to Christianity from the left-wing media. Be honest – when has the media ‘promoted’ biblical ehtcis, values and standards and who could really argue agains these? The Fourth Estate is alive and well and flourishes in the USA.
    Greg Bondar
    Sydney Australia

    1. Gerry Gentile8 months ago

      Anonymous observes “The demise of the ‘church’ is a result, in the main, of the constant and biased opposition to Christianity from the left-wing media”. I would suggest that the same might be said of their treatment of science and rational thought. When is the last time that the media (particularly television) presented real science in any type of attractive and sympathetic manner? Too many people believe in a creationist worldview, that we never landed men on the moon, and that vaccination causes autism. And if you try to challenge those beliefs, you’re accused of having sold out to “Them”

  10. GiGi Marcroft8 months ago

    Evolution and belief in God are not contradictory. Evolution is evident in world sciences but does not explain a “first cause” an omnipotent God who created the universe .

  11. Anonymous8 months ago

    Even as a five-year-old in Congregational Church kids group, I don’t think I thought the Bible stories were necessarily “real”, but rather to teach values. “God” was a concept of “good”, while Satan, the devil, was the instigator of evil. Not real beings, but ideas reflecting on human behavior, acceptable and not acceptable. At 71 years of age, I pretty much think the same. Having seen the evils of war firsthand much less global politics, I find nothing in the universe to cause me to believe in a god.

    1. Anonymous8 months ago

      Amen!

  12. Anonymous8 months ago

    “Universal Spirit” is certainly vague. I wonder what the results would have been had
    the question specified belief in the biblical Judaeo-Christian God.

  13. Christopher R Weiss8 months ago

    Religion will never die out completely. However, it is starting to fizzle in the US and across all first world democracies. It is even starting to fade in countries like Brazil. It will probably take two generations before belief drops below 50% in the US.