US religious leaders explain why faith in God hit lowest level ever, say COVID made it worse

The biggest drop in belief in God came from people between ages of 18-29

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A new Gallup poll shows that Americans’ faith in God has hit an all-time low.

And four Christian faith leaders said that a variety of factors, including young people filling their lives with things besides God and anxiety from coronavirus lockdowns, have contributed to the decline.

The poll showed that 81% of Americans believe in God, which is a six-point drop from 2017 and represents the lowest percentage Gallup has ever recorded. The biggest drop in faith in terms of age groups was a 10% decline in 18- to 29-year-olds who say they believe in God.

Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville in rural East Texas and president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told Fox News Digital that more and more people in the United States have "not only no connection to faith congregation but also really no time in life to stop and contemplate anything spiritual."

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"Even some of the people who identify themselves as Christians and say they believe in God and have accepted the gospel, for a lot of them, church and contemplation and worship have been squeezed out by the schedule in their lives," Barber explained.

Window light shining on rows of empty church pews in a church sanctuary.

Window light shining on rows of empty church pews in a church sanctuary. (iStock)

Rev. Lawrence R. Rast Jr., president of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a former Lutheran pastor, told Fox News Digital, "People are continuing to search and continuing to think about the larger questions, but the lack of dedicated spaces and time set aside for that leads to the chaos that we see around us presently."

Young people are the demographic that Catholic Bishop Robert Barron, bishop-designate of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester and founder of Word on Fire, "worries about the most" because they have "inherited the attenuation of religious practice" that is prevalent in society.

"When I was a kid, my parents took it for granted that we’d be brought to mass, we’d be taught the ways of prayer, we learned about the saints. They just immersed us in that world," Barron recalled. "Well, when you don’t immerse people in that world, you say things like, ‘Oh, it’s up to you, you decide what you want to do when you’re 16.’ You lose all that. And then we’re surprised that young people are adrift and young people have lost their sense of purpose and meaning?"

Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, president of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, told Fox News Digital that, in some ways, the poll is not surprising because churches have lost multiple generations of parishioners by not "nurturing" young people in the faith. 

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"We’re missing two or three generations of people who aren’t steeped in the rhythm or the liturgy of the church. They are not involved in the relationships in the church. They are doing other things," Bickerton said. "For me, the practice of my faith is what steeps my deepened belief in God, and if you get generations that aren’t in church practicing the rhythm of worship or practicing their faith, there’s no surprise they are now doubting whether or not God exists." 

Sanctuary of a small church

Sanctuary of a small church (iStock)

The lack of relationship building and practicing of church traditions that has contributed to the decline in the belief in God was severely exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdowns across the United States, the faith leaders said.

"I've talked to a lot of young people who say, 'You know, all through this COVID thing, I’ve come to doubt whether God exists or what my relationship with God is," Bickerton said, adding that people approaching him with questions about struggling to keep their faith is an "everyday occurrence."

"You cannot underestimate the power of relationships," Bickerton added. "So I think isolation has bred that sense of doubt."

Barber recounted a situation during COVID lockdowns that "moved the needle" for him when a grandmother in his congregation urged him to reopen the sanctuary because her son was struggling with depression after losing his father and was in a "bad place" mentally and emotionally without access to worship.

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"COVID, when you throw that in, people are even more isolated and people are also removed from church," Barber said. "COVID accelerated these things that were already trends before that."

A study conducted by conservative think tank Just Facts concluded that stress and anxiety caused by coronavirus lockdowns will destroy seven times more years of life than lockdowns saved, and several studies have shown that alcoholism, drug use and suicides noticeably increased during the pandemic.

"You see it on almost every level where if there is not the opportunity for engagement with the community or if there’s a purposeful rejection of engagement with the community. Whichever form that might take, folks try and fill that void in some way or another," Rast said. "So higher instances of self-harm, higher instances of suicide, real issues with mental well-being that people are facing, and how do you address those? Well, oftentimes folks self-medicate, and so we’ve seen a real increase in that regard as well."

Barron said that the pandemic "had a huge impact," including a "very negative impact on young people" that he has seen "close-up."

"The religious practice, prayer, going to mass, going to a religious service, as that fades away, the convictions are going to fade away," Barron said. "They have to be embodied, they have to be practiced."

People gathered for Mass inside Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Buffalo, New York, Jan. 12, 2014.

People gathered for Mass inside Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Buffalo, New York, Jan. 12, 2014. (AP)

Multiple faith leaders who spoke with Fox News Digital placed some blame for the declining belief in God in the United States on churches themselves.

Barron told Fox News Digital that churches deserve some blame because they have stopped "challenging" young people.

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"We try to make religion too user-friendly," Barron said. "We try to make it too accommodating to the culture. No. We speak out of the ancient tradition, which has been initiating people into the mystery of life and path and meaning for millennia. 

"And if we just adopt the hand-wringing stance and apologetics then we're just caving into the culture, and young people are going to say, ‘The heck with you,’ and they're going to find it uncompelling and uninteresting. Stop dumbing down the faith."

Rast told Fox News Digital he believes various scandals in churches around the country have contributed to people drifting away from their faith.

"I think that has given any number of people a permission to themselves to say, ‘If this is what the church is all about, if this is what Christianity is all about, if this is what belief in God results in, then who needs it?’"

Archbishop Gregory Aymond conducts the procession during a livestreamed Easter Mass in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, April 12, 2020.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond conducts the procession during a livestreamed Easter Mass in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, April 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

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Bickerton said young people in the church have become disillusioned by not seeing what they hear in church on Sunday being practiced on Monday. 

"I think replacing God with other things is definite, but I also believe the church is at fault at that point because the younger generation is pretty vocal about saying they've grown weary of what they hear on Sunday is not what they experience on Monday from the people who sit in the pew," Bickerton explained.

"The living out of our faith is not just a journey in a worship service, it's an encounter in the world. And the younger generation wants to see how faith is lived out in the culture. And when it's not, when there's inconsistency from the people in the church. It casts a great deal of doubt within them about, ‘Does this faith really matter?’"

While the Gallup poll is cause for concern among church leaders, some of the faith leaders who spoke to Fox News Digital expressed optimism for the future, including Rast. He pointed out that the percentage of people who believe in God in the United States is still higher than polling shows in European countries.

"When you take the longer view, the truly remarkable thing is that, even with the recent Gallup poll indicating just over 80% of Americans believe in God, that's really quite a striking number comparatively speaking to the rest of Western culture."

Barber explained that his optimism for the future comes from his studying of history and his belief that atheism does not provide the answers that people who leave the faith are looking for. 

"There have been a whole lot of times in the history of Western civilization where societies have been disillusioned by the idea of religion in general or Christianity in specific and have turned away from the idea of God or from the practice of a faith saw in their parents or grandparents by deciding to choose differently for themselves," Barber said. 

"But I'm encouraged by the fact that, after times like that, repeatedly, over and over again, in cycles of history, people have been growing disillusioned with life without God because there are profound questions in life for which atheism just doesn't provide good answers.

"So I remain optimistic," Barber added. "I'm a long-term optimist and a short-term realist about the situation with regard to people and their faith in the United States right now."