the rapidly shrinking US religious landscape

The rapid decline of Christianity in the US

the rapidly shrinking US religious landscape
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Pew has an update on the rapidly changing religious landscape in the US. Their last big major update was the 2014 Religious Landscape Survey. There they reported that the percentage of the population that identified with Christianity had dropped to 70.6% and also that the number of Nones had risen to 22.8%. Things however have continued to rapidly change since then. That was not a blip, it is part of an ongoing trend.

Highlights

Below are the numbers from their latest update. It was published a few days ago. These are the two big-ticket items …

  • In 2014 the number of Christians was 70.6% – This has now dropped to 65% … and is still falling.
  • In 2014 the number of Nones (those with no religious affiliation) was 22.8% – This has now risen to 26% and is still rising.

Ten years ago in 2009 the number of Nones was 17%. A leap to 26% within just one decade is a huge change.

On the right is their graph that illustrates this ongoing trend …

Questions

Is it the Catholic Abuse scandal that motivates a decline in Christianity?

It might indeed be a factor, but overall no, it does not explain what is being observed. Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. 

What does “None” mean?

It is the religiously unaffiliated. The group is commonly known as “Nones”, because they tick the box on religious surveys marked “None” that is rapidly growing.

Only 4% use the label “Atheist”, while others prefer “Agnostic”. Most, 17%, describe themselves as “nothing in particular,”. Terms such as “Atheist” tend to carry a lot of emotional baggage. In some US contexts telling somebody that you do not believe in a god and are not religious is not seen as being equivalent to explaining that you are an Atheist.

Is this a Full Religious Landscape survey?

No. What they have done is to collect five additional years of data (since the 2014 Landscape Study) from RDD political polls (see detailed tables). The samples from these political polls are not as large as the Landscape Studies (even when all of the political polls conducted in a year are combined), but together, 88 surveys from 2009 to 2019 included interviews with 168,890 Americans.

Taken together this is a very large sample size. However, it does not include nearly as many questions about religion as the Landscape Studies do.

What else does this latest update reveal?

The headline numbers relate to “religious affiliation”. That relates to what specifically people identify as.

They do also have numbers for “religious attendance”. In other words there are also people who do identify as (for example) Catholic, so an interesting twist is to find out if they practise by attending a Catholic Mass on a regular basis. The answer that they reveal is that “religious attendance” is also declining.

Over the last decade, the share of Americans who professed a specific belief and who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month dropped by 7 percentage points, while the share who say they attend religious services less often (if at all) has risen by the same degree. 

The specific numbers for this are illustrated within the graph on the left.

Anything else from the Survey?

Yes, lots of detail. Here are a few snippets I’ve mined out …

  • Age is part of the Trend – The younger you are the less religious you will be : Translation – this trend will continue as a younger less religious generation replaces a far more religious older generation.
  • Independent verification – This trend is being observed by others, it is not just Pew. The long-running General Social Survey (GSS), a project of the independent research organisation NORC at the University of Chicago has recorded a similar ongoing trend.
  • Absolution Numbers – The absolute numbers are also changing, this is not just about relative percentages
    • US Christianity 2009: 178 Million … vs …. US Christianity 2019: 167 Million

Why Is Christianity Declining?

Their data is observational. They simply record the trend and do not attempt to explain why.

I’m not Pew, so I can happily point you towards a few factors that might help explain this on-going trend.

I’m not convinced there is any one item. It is complicated and is perhaps best explained by multiple things. That includes, but is not wholly exclusive to these rather obvious big ticket items …

  • The rise of the Internet: The greatly increased flow of information has disrupted many things. What we believe and why we believe is not immune to this disruptive force, religion has also been greatly shaken up. No longer do many live safe inside bubbles of belief. Instead they are exposed to a diversity of other ideas and beliefs.
  • Abuse Scandals: It has not simply been Catholic clerics. Abuse and the cover up of it has been exposed within most religious groups.
  • The “Moral Majority” has been revealed to be the “Immoral Minority”. Intolerance, gross hypocrisy, and bigotry are rampant. For those emotionally invested, belief tends to stick, but for a younger generation that does not have that history, rather a lot of it is repugnant stuff and so many quietly walk away.
  • The Rise of Identity politics. One specific party has become deeply identified with evangelicalism. Those not part of that political tribe increasingly feel like outsiders and not at home.
  • Population composition is changing.
  • Education: Access to better education also plays a role.

One Last Thought – Where is this Going?

Amongst Millennials, (those born 1981 onwards), Christianity is a minority belief at only 49%.

Further Reading

Pew (17th Our 2019) – In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace

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