RELIGION: For US Mormons, religiosity has declined over time, study shows

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RELIGION:

(RNS) — In 2008 more than three-quarters of US Latter-day Saints said that religion was “very important” to them, but by 2020 that had declined to just under 62%, according to the national Cooperative Election Study as analyzed by sociologist Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University.

CES data analyzed by Ryan Burge, Eastern Illinois University.

This finding, drawn from nearly 7,000 LDS total respondents over the course of 12 years, is in line with what is happening to other religious groups in the United States. People are becoming less religious and leaving religion is a growing trend. In terms of long-term trends in America, here’s a telling factoid: in 1952, Gallup found that 72% of Americans ranked religion as “very important” in their lives, and by 2018 that had dropped to 51%.

Mormons are, it seems, more religious than the whole nation, but less devout. This is without considering the possible impact of Covid on religiosity. Future studies will be able to track this.

There are silver linings to the data. The data shows that while there is a decline in the number of Mormons who consider religion “very important”, the ratio of those who consider it “somewhat important” to those who consider it “very important” has not changed. In 2008, 93.4% of US Mormons said their religion was either very or somewhat important to them. In 2020, that same combination yielded 88.5%.

So basically, roughly 9 out of 10 latter-day Saints in the United States still say religion is important to at least some degree.

There were also other interesting findings. Dr. Burge was able to confirm that there were differences in the generational data. He suggested that the declines might be greater among younger adults while older Mormons held steady.

However, this did not appear to be the case. There was not a big gap between the under-40 group (the solid blue line) and the over 40s (the dotted red line). They were separated by only a few points. It is clear that this is not just a story about young people driving religion’s decline. The decline seems to have spread across all ages.

CES data analyzed by Ryan Burge, Eastern Illinois University.

These are results about people who claim to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What is the number of members? This question can be answered by the CES or other national studies.

It’s great that we have these data because the Church seems to have stopped giving it. The Church normally releases its global membership numbers at the April General Conference, and then follows up with information about each country within a week. This years it released the first (global) numbers, but not the second ,. This is the first time I can recall that the Church has not provided the country-by–country statistics that are so crucial for researchers. In April, I asked for this information and was informed that the numbers would be available. However, they have not been published after seven months.

My concern is that they will never, since the church has a poor history of handling membership declines. In fact, back in the 1980s and 1990s, when some other churches were beginning to show declines, Mormons routinely congratulated ourselves on being the Lord’s true church as evidenced by the fact that we continued to grow. What does it do to triumphalist theology, which is based on success after success?

In any case, the official Church membership data will always be greater than the number who claim a Latter Day Saint religious identity in a national survey. In the LDS Church, members stay on the membership rules until the age of 110 unless they are excommunicated or have gone through the formal process of requesting that their records be removed. Most people who quit attending church do not follow that formal route. This means that many more people are members of the church than would be identified on a survey.

Despite the fact that inflation is a factor, Church official rolls are still a great way to track trends over time. Here are some statistics on the United States’ membership for the past few years:

2011
6,144,582

2012
6,321,416
+2.9%
2013
6,398,889
+1.2%
2014
6,466,267
+1.1%
2015
6,531,656
+1.0%
2016
6,592,195
+0.9%
2017
6,641,886
+0.8%
2018
6,681,829
+0.6%
2019
6,721,032
+0.6%

What we see is that even before the disruptions of the pandemic, the Church’s rate of annual growth in the US had been gradually slowing. An educated guess would be that with the suspension of missionary work and the many disruptions COVID brought to the Church’s efforts in 2020, the Church in the US entered negative growth for the first time since 1857.

The CES confirms that more people are leaving Mormonism. A smaller percentage of the population now claims an LDS identity than in the past.

CES data analyzed by David E. Campbell, University of Notre Dame.

In the past three years, 1.3% of Americans claimed to be Mormons. This is a decline from the earlier years of the study; for instance, from 2008 to 2010 1.8% or 1.9% of the population identified this way. The trend line for Mormons is showing some decline compared with two other minor religions, according to David Campbell of University of Notre Dame. Jews have remained steady, increasing their share slightly, while Muslims have nearly doubled their share from below half of a percentage to just under 1%.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a significant decline to move from 1.8% to 1.3% of the population. But when you think about the context, it’s a decline of 27% in just over a decade. This is not good news, even though it’s predictable given what’s happening to other Christian religions these day.

Related:

Why so many Mormon temples when LDS growth is flat?

Mormon growth continues to slow, church report shows

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