Nearly three-quarters of the public think that religion is losing influence in American life. According to a recent poll by Pew Research Center that number rose 5 percentage points since 2010, and the majority of people see that as a bad thing.

“A religion as defined in this particular survey has to do with the worship of a deity with a set of rituals with an agreed upon set of moral laws,” said Anthony Hatcher, Associate Professor of Communications at Elon University. “And I would argue again in the confines of the United States and the Pew Survey, that part of that is the 10 commandments, that pervasive Abrahamic law.”

“It’s become the 10 suggestions, not the 10 commandments,” said Brian Diver, Associate Pastor of King’s Park International Church, a non-denominational church in Durham, North Carolina.

The results of the study also showed that 71 percent of Americans are absolutely certain that God exists, while only 8 percent do not believe in Him. More than half of the country also said that religion is very important in one’s life.

The Southeast had the highest concentration of individuals who believe in God and value His importance in their lives.

In Burlington, North Carolina, one church, built in 1855, is trying to maintain it’s impact in the lives of its congregation.

“The church has been the hub of this community for generations,” Bob Disher said. “When I first came here this community was called the St. Mark’s community largely because the church had such a visible presence in the community for a very long time.”

Disher, who has been the senior pastor of St. Marks Church for 36 years, has seen the change happen right in front of his eyes.

St. Marks Church, located on St. Mark's Church Road, was built in 1855 in Burlington, North Carolina before there were any roads. The church has a congregation of over 2,000 members. St. Marks Church is one of more than 130 in Burlington, North Carolina.

“What I’ve seen over the past 10 to 15 years is that the Christian worldview has become less and less relevant to people,” said Disher, who believes that view has been watered down by the proliferation of other belief systems in society. “That has certainly diminished our ability to influence.”

According to Pastor Brian Diver, the “Bible Belt” is no longer visibly holding up the South. He said religion’s influence has changed dramatically and isn’t guiding people’s day to day lives.

“This is a generation that questions everything,” Diver said. “When I grew up I was told not to question things. You follow, follow, obey, or else.”

Diver described three areas of American life that have contributed to this change: the breakdown of the family, our education system, and the media.

“If there’s not stability and authority and unity in the home then everybody is their own island,” Diver said. “Our educational system has taken prayer, God and the Bible and anything that’s authoritative out of the classroom, and the media is certainly not religion friendly.”

“With that three pronged attack how would I have a chance,” Diver said, who believes our culture is not conducive to helping people be spiritual or religious.

“As someone who used to be blinded by being a Christian in this nation I no longer can overlook its influence in everyday life,” said Elizabeth Nichols, president of the Secular Society at Elon. “To be American is to be patriotic, is to trust in God, is to be one nation, united under God. Religious undertones have been present throughout the foundation of this country and it would be ridiculous to think that its presence isn’t here any more.”

Screen shot 2014-12-05 at 5.28.20 PMAccording to Hatcher millennial surveys show that religion is less important in the lives of 18- to 25-year-olds and on college campuses religion is a weak determinant.

“There still are very strong faith groups on those university campuses,” Hatcher said, but I don’t see a strong religious presence overwhelming any public university.”

Rebecca Schneider, President of Campus Outreach at Elon University sees the declining influence, but isn’t surprised.

“There are definitely a lot fewer amount of people in this world who are going to church that are actually believing in Christ,” she said.

[An interactive map displaying churches in Burlington, North Carolina. Zoom out to see churches across the state and country.]

“Some people would call themselves religious when they don’t actually have a true faith,” Schneider said. “They’re just going through the motions.”

Diver agreed that you can see the decline of influence in young adults.

“Young people come to college as Christians, believers, religious, but by the end of their four years they are non-practicing,” Diver said. “The numbers are staggering. They’re away from home, they challenge everything and have no accountability and the university classes often undermine any absolute truth.”

Millennials are a more non-affiliated age range than previous generations and the number of people who don’t identify with any religion has grown, according to Hatcher.

“In 1970s, 80s, 90s, most college kids regardless of their everyday life practice were affiliated probably with a religious tradition,” Hatcher said. “Today that is less so.”

“I think that I am a minority,” said Schneider, who uses her life to glorify God. “There are a lot more people on this campus who don’t live that way than people who do.”


The Pew study revealed that just over one-third of evangelical Christians said it has become more difficult to identify as such in this society.

“You’re not encouraged in that realm a whole lot, even in the workplace, it’s so pluralized,” Diver said. “You don’t talk about God, you can’t say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Our culture is not conducive to helping people be spiritual or religious.”

Relatively few religious “nones,” only 8 percent, said it has become more difficult in the U.S. to be a person with no religion in recent years. Most religious “nones” said it has become easier to be a person with no religion or that it hasn’t changed much.

Contrary to the poll, Nichols feels that it’s very difficult to be irreligious in this society.

“When people hear atheist or agnostic or irreligious or spiritual they think that somebody can’t come to know God and therefore they don’t have any morals,” Nichols said. “There is a huge demonization of people who don’t believe in a certain God.”

“Spirituality, religion, it makes you think beyond yourself and that’s a good thing for our culture,” Diver said. Religion teaches you the golden rule, but you don’t have to go to church to know that and American culture still has vestiges of that.”

“The church has gradually watched the culture move away from biblical values,” said Disher, who is concerned that the church giving up pieces of truth decreases their ability to influence the culture.

According to Hatcher, the shift has been a result of social evolution. It has been a long progression starting in the 1970s with the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, but at the turn of the 21st century there was rapid progression toward liberalization of social rules. Those liberal movements are making their way through the doors of churches in ways that never would have been recognized before.

“In the past five years or so, things that even our nation hasn’t accepted before, they are now starting to accept as the norm and as things that are okay and deviating from their previous Christian roots and you can see that in churches,” Schneider said. “Those are churches that are making more exceptions for things and ignoring part of the Bible to make people more comfortable.”


In 10 years there has been more than a 20 point increase in support of gay marriage to 52%. And in 5 years there has been almost a 20 point increase.

“There are parts of the church that have said culture is changing, we’re changing with it,” Diver said. “One of the major ones is the handling of homosexuality and gay marriages.”

The current Pew Research poll indicated that 49 percent of the public expressed support for same-sex marriage and 41 percent expressed opposition. Three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants oppose same-sex marriage. By contrast, three-quarters of the religiously unaffiliated support allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.

Nearly three-quarters of religious “nones” say that homosexual behavior is not sinful, and white mainline Protestants and Catholics are more evenly divided about whether homosexual behavior is sinful.

“Some churches are ordaining homosexual ministers and others are adamantly opposed to that,” Diver said. “They’re saying you can be homosexual and you can live together and have a civil union, but we’re not going to marry you because we see the basic biblical understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman.”

With any controversial issue that involves different institutions in society there is no black and white.

“The church morphs, some do and some don’t,” Diver said. “Sometimes we sacrifice being authentic in order to be attractive.”

Some argue the lack of authenticity in religion today and the plurality of world views, contribute to the decline of a single religion’s relevance in American life.

Screen shot 2014-12-05 at 5.34.49 PM

“As kids grow up with social media and the Internet they’re going to have more access to what’s out there, and opinions that are different than their own and have the tools to explore and figure out for themselves what they do and don’t believe,” Nichols said. “Kids are becoming more independent every day.”

Hatcher said that nationwide individuals in the millennial generation are more interested in working for nonprofits and going out and helping the less fortunate than previous generations, which is what churches used to do. However, while they value charity and giving of themselves, they don’t necessarily want the God part.

“You have this dichotomy in that people say I want to help the poor, hungry, less fortunate, diseased, I want to go volunteer, but when I wake up on Sunday morning I want to get a latte instead of going to mass,” Hatcher said.

That liberal rather than traditionalist mindset characterizes the shift in this generation of enacting change through their own will rather than using religion and the will of God.

“The next generation is going to produce more progressive minded thinkers and I think that religion is going to matter less and less,” Nichols said. “As the numbers dwindle I think we are going to hear stronger and stronger protests, but from smaller amounts of people.”

In that shift to a more progressive movement Nichols believes that there will be more room for genuine humanitarian efforts and authentic compassion for others.

“Social and civil liberties are kind of what our generation wants,” Nichols said. “And I think we’re smart enough to get it especially with the decline of religious input.”