If so, why?

And if not, when was it not the case that a greater percentage of Americans believe in Christianity than Britons? And what caused the subsequent divergence?

Definitions. (For the purposes of this question only.)

  • An American is any citizen of the United States.
  • A Briton is any citizen of the United Kingdom.
  • Restrict attention to Jan 1st, 1801 and after. (This being the date when the United Kingdom came into existence.)
  • A person is defined to believe in Christianity if he/she would strongly agree with the statement "Jesus was miraculously resurrected from the dead a few days after his execution by crucifixion." Statement has been changed. My goal is just to have something precise, well-defined, and at least in principle ascertainable. Suggestions are welcome.
  • 5
    I think your third definition is fraught with difficulties. It's very unlikely that any polls were conducted with that definition. Church attendance is probably the best proxy we have (though that's by no means perfect either considering attendance was mandatory for some periods and some places). – Jon Ericson Apr 14 '14 at 18:14
  • 2
    My premise is that in 2014, it is certainly the case that a greater % of Americans than Britons believe that Jesus was raised from the dead (correct me if I'm wrong). My question is therefore this: Was this always the case? And if not, at what point was this not the case, and what are some of the historical reasons for the subsequent decline of Christianity in the UK vis-à-vis the US? – user3521 Apr 14 '14 at 18:54
  • 1
    @KennyLJ re your premise about 2014, I'm sure that is the case today (support). I'd venture the opinion that apart from the factors the UK has in common with much of Europe (materialism, two devastating major wars, etc), the specific decline of the Empire has had a particular effect on the British psyche causing her citizens to question past certainties and institutions. – user2946 Apr 14 '14 at 19:12
  • 1
    For polling and statistical purposes, the most common operational definition of Christian is that of self-identification. I.e., you are counted as a Christian if you think that you are a Christian. It is easy to find modern statistical data on this (historically, may be harder), and reasonably possible to find comparisons to related, but very different, statistics such as church attendance. – RBarryYoung Apr 14 '14 at 21:44
  • 3
    And among mainstream Christians, the Nicene Creed is the usual standard for Christianity. – Bradd Szonye Apr 14 '14 at 23:58

I think that it will be impossible to provide the kind of data you want, but we can approximate an answer.

A google search on "Decline of Christianity in Britain" will reveal multiple articles by eminent Britons that agree that Christianity is declining. Lord Carey thinks soAmericans think so. The Telegraph thinks so.

The same search repeated for the USA indicates that the church may not be declining (*Update: I don't intend this single citation to prove the point. I didn't want to base my answer on the simple assertion of OP. While I think OP's assertion is probably correct, I don't have the data and I don't want to gather the data. I started the answer by comparing two google searches - the google search on Britain suggests that there is consensus that the church is declining, while the google search on the USA suggests that the conclusion is still in doubt. I admit that is a very weak methodology, but I think I've made it clear this is an approximate answer.)

How can we explain this? I'm afraid that I cannot list a single, succinct resource, but I think the discussion below relies on Gordon Wood's American Revolution - I have similar information from a bunch of diffuse sources.

  • In the 17th and 18th century, America was settled by quite a few people explicitly seeking religious freedom (e.g. Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New England). These people were committed to their faith. They had to be committed, because it required effort to dissent from the national church. Others were non-Christians - Washington's letter to the Synagogue in Rhode Island comes to mind as an example of a non-christian community.

  • Dissenting Christians in England, and non-christians had a place to go. CoE was the national religion of England. I'm not saying that there weren't devout members of CoE - there certainly were. But if you were English and you didn't care about religion, you were CoE.

  • Religious Freedom in America meant that you had to choose to believe in a religion, and people did. Sometimes converting multiple times before they found a community and a belief pattern that could accomodate them.

  • The Great Awakening burned more brightly in the US than in Europe. We were more interested in religious and spiritual matters. I personally believe it is significant that African Americans participated at all levels in the Great Awakening. A free African American could achieve significant status as a skilled preacher.

  • Political and civic institutions in the US had a different relationship to the church because there was (rather quickly) no established church. The CoE never established a strong presence in the US - as a matter of fact, the last time I was in Williamsburg VA, they were speculating that the absence of CoE clerical positions had a significant effect on the eventual rebellion. That argument is a bit more complicated that I can shoehorn into this answer.

  • Because the US was pluralistic and immigrant, institutions of affinity played a greater role. In Europe, your identity was fixed by birth. In the US, people had to bind together to form new communities regularly. Institutions like Churches were important for establishing the trust needed for a community.

Essentially, I'm arguing that churches were a more important institution in the lives of early colonists than they were in Europeans. Most of the forces that lead to the decline of the CoE are present in the US, but they are operating against a less committed body of believers.

  • Pluralism - Because CoE is more monolithic (loosely speaking), pluralism undercuts it more. The USA was designed around religious pluralism.

  • Modernity. Christianity is designed to appeal to pastoral nomads. It requires some effort to adapt the rituals and scriptures of rural pastoralists to industrial laborers.

  • 3
    "...repeated for the USA indicates that the church may not be declining." One opinion piece in CT is hardly convincing against the truly massive amount of factual evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the CT article never goes so far as to claim that "the church is not declining in America". Rather it retreats to the much weaker claim that it is only "not dying". And that's unsurprising since every single factual reference in it is at best merely neutral to it's position, while most actually quite convincingly suggest that the church in America is very much in decline. – RBarryYoung Apr 14 '14 at 22:01
  • 1
    Well-informed answer. I did read before that American religiosity was dependent on the fact that it was a very religiously pluralistic nation. American religious freedom may be a powerful factor in keeping religious traditions. – Double U Apr 15 '14 at 1:27
  • 1
    An odd omission here WRT "Awakenings", particularly in America, is the massive proliferation of Evangelical Christian Fundamentalism in the 20th century, which is really also a political movement, and certainly accounts for most of the growth, and any lack of decline, in the past hundred years. Worth noting that it essentially did not exist prior to 1900, and that the growth of Christianity has historically always driven by similar branching with clear political undertones. – goldilocks Apr 15 '14 at 6:30
  • I through that kind of questions about opinions, and impossible to prove with facts or studies, were banned from SE? – Quidam Dec 23 '20 at 13:52

I think that Mark has made some good points, but I do not agree with everything.

This question has to be seen in a broader context. It is not only in Britain that Christianity has pretty much died out. It is the same in all advanced European countries (France, Germany, Holland, Italy etc.). Also in countries like Japan and China religion is virtually extinct. There are several factors involved. I apologise to our American friends for saying this, but one of them is that the standard of education is on average very much higher in Europe than in the USA. I teach at a university here in England and I can attest that the calibre of our students from the US is on average very much lower than those from Britain, from other European countries, and certainly those from China and Japan. Generally speaking, intelligent and well-educated people do not believe in supernatural beings. Another point is that we in Europe have seen tens of millions of people killed in two world wars in the 20th century and find it impossible to believe than a beneficent omnipotent god could have allowed such things to happen. Americans know (presumably) about this, but they did not see it happening in their own country.

  • 4
    "It is not only in Britain that Christianity has pretty much died out. It is the same in all advanced European countries" And this errs by going way too far in the other direction. Christianity may be declining in these countries (and significantly so) but it is not even close to being dead. The patients may be sick and ailing, but that is quite a bit different from being dead and buried in the ground. – RBarryYoung Apr 14 '14 at 22:06
  • 2
    Americans are as well educated as Germans according to international standardized tests. I do not doubt however that American exchange students are terrible, especially in English and Spanish speaking countries or places that are near beach resorts, but I think you misunderstand American university culture. – Razie Mah Apr 14 '14 at 23:30
  • Which standardized tests? – fdb Apr 14 '14 at 23:36
  • 1
    @fdb Those students are in high school, but the US did worse. There was a sampling issue with over-representing low income schools. Despite, this from your own source: The American result was average in science and reading, but lagged behind in mathematics compared to other developed nations. There was little change from the previous test in 2009. China doesn't take the PISA. You need something other than a discriminatory opinion against religious people to explain the decline of Christianity. – Razie Mah Apr 15 '14 at 12:29
  • 4
    Downvoting this not because I disagree, but because I think its a) Entirely based on personal opinion, b) A statement of personal religious belief masquerading as a statement about mass belief, and c) A badly-argued specimen at that. – T.E.D. Apr 15 '14 at 12:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy