For many Americans, religion is on the decline. According to Duke professor Mark Chaves’ new book “American Religion: Contemporary Trends,” Americans have less confidence in religious leaders and waning interest in worship—despite political rhetoric that can present a misconception about the prevalence of Christianity. The Chronicle’s Chandra Swanson spoke with Chaves, professor of sociology, religion and divinity, about the new trend in religious beliefs and why he believes faith is taking a backseat.

The Chronicle: First, can you please give an overview of the argument you present in your new book?

Mark Chaves: Basically, it is about what is changing and what is not changing about American religion. It’s really a factual book, but the punch line, if there is one, is that American religiosity is either stable or slowly declining. There’s a lot of discussion and debate about this. There is nothing, no indicator that traditional religiosity is going up. There are some that are stable, and some indicators are in decline. So we’re stable or in slow decline—I think it is slow decline. Of course, some people disagree.

TC: Why is tracking religious trends of interest to you personally? What caused you to pursue this research question?

MC: There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there about American religion, and as a sociologist and social scientist, I like to get those facts straight, and I like to think that the public is getting the facts straight. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. So through the research and the book, I am hoping to help set the public straight and to help keep the public informed.

TC: You highlight the changes within religious practice. What is an example of an important change?

MC: This is a good example of ambiguity in the indicators. If you look at the basic belief in God—the people who say that they believe in a god—over 90 percent of Americans still believe in God. So for some people, this is a sign of stability, that almost everybody in the U.S. believes in God. Especially in comparison with other countries, that’s a significant percentage. In 1950s, though, that number was 99 percent. Today, it is 91 percent. Again, you could look at that and say, “Wow. That’s almost everybody and, decline [in American religiosity] or not, that’s almost everyone, that’s stability.” I disagree, though. It is similar to the glass half-full, glass half-empty argument. You could emphasize the fact that it’s 91 percent now or emphasize the 99 percent and the decline from there. This is a pretty good example of the interpretative problem. And there are a lot of indicators of that sort.

TC: What has made you take the stance that religion is in decline?

MC: All things considered, I think that religion is slowing down, in decline, because of the fact that, looking at change, everything is clearly going in the decline direction. Let me give an example: One of indicators is the 18 percent of people who say they have no religion. Ask them, “What’s your religion?” and they say, “Nothing, I have no religion.” More than 80 percent of Americans do. In comparison to the rest of the world, that’s a significant number. But in the 1950s, it was 3 percent who had no religion. Those kind of examples, wherever you look, show change in that kind of direction. It’s like global warming or climate change. Maybe one indicator you could discount, but when you take all the indicators into account, it is clearly declining.

TC: Did any of your findings surprise you in particular?

MC: One surprising finding was the increase in percentage of Americans who think that religious leaders should not influence politics. It’s a surprise to me because it is something that has gone on for awhile. In other words, the amount of backlash was surprising. I’ll give you some statistics—in 1991, 30 percent of Americans disapproved of religious influence in politics. In 2008, 44 percent strongly agreed that religious leaders should not be involved. The majority of Americans still agree a little bit or strongly of course, but the magnitude of the change surprised me a little bit. Another thing I think is surprising is the megachurch phenomenon. Everyone knows about it—it’s been going on since the 1970s probably. What is surprising is when I looked at the concentrations in a dozen different denominations—in every denomination—this concentration is happening. The phenomenon is just the tip of the iceberg of a deeper change where people are switching from smaller churches to larger churches. I’m not certain of other areas, but in the Protestant religions, the extent is surprising. In growing denominations, shrinking denominations, in liberal, in conservative, in every one­—the concentration [in megachurches] is increasing. I think part of the story is an economic story. The economics of running churches shifted in the 1970s. Essentially, it became more and more difficult for smaller churches to maintain quality programming, the quality of the music, youth programs and even preaching. I think that pushed people out of the smaller churches into the larger churches that can still afford the well-organized, quality youth programming, for instance.

TC: Is the faith being lost in religious leaders also affecting the general sense of spirituality? How have you seen the differences in religion and spirituality in your research?

MC: Yes. One of the things that is going up is the percentage of people who say that they are spiritual but not religious. And in this, it is difficult to know exactly what people mean. It’s still a minority. And it’s still a majority that say that they are spiritual and religious, if you give them a chance to say that. But the percentage that say that they are spiritual is still going up, especially with young people. I looked at those under 40s, and in 1998, 11 percent of 18- to 39-year-olds reported that they were spiritual. In 2008, it was 18 percent. If what people mean by that is that they don’t really like organized religion, but still think of themselves as spiritual. It’s one way to explain.

TC: Are there any last comments or insights that you would like to share?

MC: I’d just emphasize where we started. This research is focused on setting the record straight, trying to make it clear what is changing and not changing. It’s to put the information out there so that people who want to know will be informed.