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Faith After the Pandemic: How COVID-19 Changed American Religion

Survey Center on American Life

January 5, 2023

Key Points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic precipitated an overall decline in religious attendance, although religious identity remained mostly stable.
  • The number of Americans who never attend religious services jumped over the past two
    years; roughly one in three Americans now report that they never attend religious services.
  • Young adults report the greatest change in religious attendance of any age group.

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The COVID-19 pandemic touched nearly every aspect of American life. Schools, offices, grocery stores, and churches faced daunting challenges in the early days of the pandemic in their efforts to operate while keeping their employees, members, and the broader community safe. For churches and religious organi­zations, concerns over COVID-19 led many to pause traditional in-person worship services. A recent Pew Research Center study found that nearly one in three churches or religious organizations were completely closed in summer 2020, while others moved outside or online. By March 2022, most were offering some type of regular service, but only 43 percent of religious Americans reported that services currently being offered by their place of worship were back to their pre-pandemic operations.1

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted religious par­ticipation for millions of Americans. In summer 2020, only 13 percent of Americans reported attending in-person worship services. This rebounded to 27 per­cent by March 2022, but rates of worship attendance were still lower than they were before the pandemic.2 However, the pandemic did not appear to affect one’s faith, with most adults reporting that their religious affiliation today was no different than it was pre-pandemic. In fact, one study showed that the expe­rience of the pandemic may have even strengthened many Americans’ religious faith.3

To better understand how COVID-19 and church closures influenced patterns of religious attendance and identity, the Survey Center on American Life at AEI teamed up with researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago to measure religious affiliation and attendance both before the pandemic (2018 to March 2020) and again in spring 2022. For the 2022 American Religious Benchmark Survey, interviews were conducted with the same people to enable us to measure actual changes in religious behavior or identity. These data give us a unique opportunity to understand what changes, if any, the pandemic had on America’s religiosity.

The results show that religious identity remained sta­ble through the pandemic. White mainline Christians and white evangelical Christians were the two larg­est religious groups both pre-pandemic and in spring 2022. Unaffiliated adults also made up a quarter (25 percent) of adults in both periods. Nineteen percent of adults changed their religious identification during the pandemic, including 6 percent who were unaf­filiated pre-pandemic but reported a religion in spring 2022 and 5 percent who reported a religion pre-pandemic but then were unaffiliated in spring 2022.

However, religious attendance was significantly lower in spring 2022 than it was pre-pandemic. In spring 2022, 33 percent of Americans reported that they never attend religious services, compared to one in four (25 percent) who reported this before the pan­demic. There was less change among the most reli­giously engaged Americans. Before the pandemic, 26 percent of Americans reported attending religious services at least once a week, similar to the 24 percent who did so in spring 2022.

The survey also reveals who remained at the pews, who returned to the pews, and who left. Conservatives, adults age 50 and older, women, married adults, and those with a college degree were more likely to attend than were other groups in both periods.

Most adults continued to attend at the same rate as pre-pandemic, including adults age 65 and older, adults with a college degree or higher, Mormon adults, white evangelical Christians, and white Catholics. Adults age 30–49, adults with less than a college degree, and black Protestants saw the largest increases in atten­dance between the two periods. Twice as many adults decreased attendance than increased attendance, however. Adults under age 50, adults with a college degree or less, Hispanic Catholics, black Protestants, and white mainline Protestants saw the largest declines in attendance.

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