OK, so let’s poke about in the numbers a bit and see what pops out, here is a summary of what has been happening since 2007 …
It might indeed be tempting to think that people are becoming more rational but we should also remember that religion is essentially an emotional experience, and so what we see is an emotional response triggered by events such as the following:
- The Catholic abuse scandal will have resulted in many religious people abandoning their Catholicism. Traditionally being Christian is often a default because it is felt that it is the highest moral position, but when it is then revealed that Catholicism has been systematically covering up vast swathes of abuse and protecting the abusers, that default notion is sufficiently challenged to motivate many to walk away.
- Politics within the US has become increasingly polarised over the past decades with one specific party being associated with some rather extreme religious views. Those naturally aligned to a more liberal view tend to be isolated from their religious tradition as a result, and so naturally drop away.
- Equal rights for the gay community is on the right side of the moral question, and because many religious groups are now isolated and self-identifying as homophobic bigots, the more moderate less extreme thinkers within their ranks naturally drop away
- The Internet has greatly increased the flow of information available, and that enables many who were previously isolated within a bubble of belief to become more cognisant with the fuller conversation, including the rebuttals. But this it is not simply about an increased flow of information, it is also about those who doubt finding a community of like-minded individuals online that they can now align themselves with.
A few More Observations
The strength and important of religious belief is declining. Historically, people tended to stick to marrying those within their religious community, but that has changed. The fact that this is so would in some ways suggest that people belong to a specific religious group for cultural reasons primarily
Among Americans who have gotten married since 2010, nearly four-in-ten (39%) report that they are in religiously mixed marriages, compared with 19% among those who got married before 1960
The unaffiliated tend to be young, and the religious are older, this suggest that as the religious pass away, the unaffiliated will still be growing …
the median age of unaffiliated adults has dropped to 36, down from 38 in 2007 and far lower than the general (adult) population’s median age of 46.4 By contrast, the median age of mainline Protestant adults in the new survey is 52 (up from 50 in 2007), and the median age of Catholic adults is 49 (up from 45 seven years earlier).
How Accurate is this Poll?
They polled a nationally representative sample of 35,071 adults by telephone, and included hundreds of interviews with people from small religious groups that account for just 1% or 2% of the U.S. population, such as Mormons, Episcopalians and Seventh-day Adventists, so that enables them to get far better coverage than some of the smaller surveys. They also conducted a similar poll back in 2007 so they have the ability to look back and see what has been happening since then.
Like all polls, treat it with a pinch of salt. Applying the results of a survey of 35,071 to a population of 245 million will yield a potential for a rather large margin of error. Even if we account for that, what is still clear is that the decline in Christianity is larger than the combined margins of sampling error in the twin surveys conducted seven years apart, so while we can never be sure about the precise numbers in reality, we can be sure that the decline is real.
- You can find the full report here – PDF (200 pages)
- Here is the actual questionnaire they used – PDF (35 pages)
- Here is their press release (Dated today 12th May)
- Interactive Database access here
Finally … if you might be wondering who is funding this study …
The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan American think tank based in Washington, D.C and is funded by a subsidiary called The Pew Charitable Trusts. It does not take explicit policy positions.
And no, the use of the word “Pew” does not imply some religious pew in a church, but rather is the name of the founders …
The Trusts, a single entity, is the successor to, and sole beneficiary of, seven charitable funds established between 1948 and 1979 by J. Howard Pew, Mary Ethel Pew, Joseph N. Pew, Jr., and Mabel Pew Myrin — the adult sons and daughters of Sun Oil Company founder Joseph N. Pew and his wife, Mary Anderson Pew.
… Early priorities of the Pew Memorial Trust included cancer research, the American Red Cross, and a pioneering project to assist historically black colleges. Later beneficiaries included conservative organizations such as the John Birch Society, the American Liberty League, and the American Enterprise Institute, as well as environmental organizations such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Oceana, and mainstream think tanks like the Brookings Institution
… According to the 2009 annual report, as of 30 June 2008, the Trusts owned over US$5.8 billion in assets. For the 12 months ending on that date, total revenues were about US$360 million and total expenses were about $250 million, of which about $14 million were for operating costs and fund raising expenses.