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Losing My Religion: Declining Belief Changing America’s Religious Landscape

While those in my generation, Gen Xers, are undoubtedly familiar with the R.E.M. classic, it seems that sentiment has struck a chord and is resonating with the Millennials as well.

Because the U.S. census does not ask questions about religion, Pew Research Center’s  survey, called “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” provides one of the most reliable sources of data about the country’s religious demographics. Based in Washington, Pew calls itself a nonpartisan “fact tank” and regularly produces vast and detailed studies of religion.

Released Tuesday, a new study  surveying 35,000 American adults, shows the Christian percentage of the population dropping to 70.6%. The last time Pew conducted a similar survey, 78.4% of American adults identified themselves Christian. That was in 2007.

These changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.

Almost every major branch of Christianity in the United States has lost a significant number of members, Pew found, mainly because Millennials are leaving the fold. More than one-third of Millennials now say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 percentage points since 2007. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. The share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus.

“We’ve known that the religiously unaffiliated has been growing for decades,” said Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of religion research and the lead researcher on the new study. “But the pace at which they’ve continued to grow is really astounding.”

People who profess no faith affiliation — often called “nones,” as in “none of the above” — now form nearly 23% percent of the country’s adult population, according to the study. That puts the unaffiliated nearly on par with evangelicals (25.4%) and ahead of Catholics (about 21%) and mainline Protestants (14.7%).

One of the most important factors in the declining share of Christians and the growth of the “nones” is generational replacement. As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations. Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33). And fewer than six-in-ten Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity. Just 16% of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11% identify with mainline Protestantism. Roughly one-in-five are evangelical Protestants. Nearly a quarter of Generation Xers now say they have no particular religion or describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, up four points in seven years. Baby Boomers also have become slightly but noticeably more likely to identify as religious “nones” in recent years.

Paul Fidalgo, communications director for the Center for Inquiry, a secular advocacy group states:

“We are very cognizant that this does not mean there’s been a straight-up spike in nonbelievers, But it’s still really good news to see a whole generation of people who are making their own decisions about belief, religion and spirituality.”

It’s also good news for strict church-state separationists, Fidalgo said, especially those who want to see traditional religious morality disappear from debates over women’s health, abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change.

The collapse of American Christianity can’t simply be laid at the feet of religious leaders, demographers say. There are bigger societal swings in play: Americans are marrying later, increasingly to spouses who don’t share their faith, and having fewer children. Mainline Protestants have particularly low birth rates.

Other experts blame innovations such as the rise of the Internet and social web, where religions can be fact-checked in real time and seekers can find communities of like-minded iconoclasts.  Instead, many Christian denominations have been riven by internal struggles over homosexuality, particularly in the last decade. While most Millennials back gay rights, according to separate surveys, they are more interested in working with the wider world than holding endless debates over sexual morality.

Nearly a quarter of Generation Xers now say they have no particular religion or describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, up four points in seven years. Baby Boomers also have become slightly but noticeably more likely to identify as religious “nones” in recent years.

 

(H/T CNN.comPew Forum   Image: Flickr)

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