Nate Cohn, New York Times
The Christian share of adults in the United States has declined sharply since
2007, affecting nearly all major Christian traditions and denominations, and
crossing age, race and region, according to an extensive survey by the Pew
Seventy-one percent of American adults were Christian in 2014, the
lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date, and a decline of 5 million
adults and 7 percentage points since a similar Pew survey in 2007.
The Christian share of the population has been declining for decades, but
the pace rivals or even exceeds that of the country’s most significant
demographic trends, like the growing Hispanic population. It is not confined
to the coasts, the cities, the young or the other liberal and more secular groups
where one might expect it, either.
“The decline is taking place in every region of the country, including the
Bible Belt,” said Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at the Pew
Research Center and the lead editor of the report.
The decline has been propelled in part by generational change, as
relatively non-Christian millennials reach adulthood and gradually replace the
oldest and most Christian adults. But it is also because many former
Christians, of all ages, have joined the rapidly growing ranks of the religiously
unaffiliated or “nones”: a broad category including atheists, agnostics and
those who adhere to “nothing in particular.”
The Pew survey, which included 35,000 adults, offers an unusually
comprehensive account of religion in the United States because the Census
Bureau does not ask Americans about their religion. Most other
nongovernmental surveys do not interview enough adults to allow precise
estimates, do not ask other detailed questions about religion or do not have
older surveys for comparison.
The report does not offer an explanation for the decline of the Christian
population, but the low levels of Christian affiliation among the young, well
educated and affluent are consistent with prevailing theories for the rise of the
unaffiliated, like the politicization of religion by American conservatives, a
broader disengagement from all traditional institutions and labels, the
combination of delayed and interreligious marriage, and economic
Over all, the religiously unaffiliated number 56 million and represent 23
percent of adults, up from 36 million and 16 percent in 2007, Pew estimates.
Nearly half of the growth was from atheists and agnostics, whose tallies nearly
doubled to 7 percent of adults. The remainder of the unaffiliated, those who
describe themselves as having “no particular religion,” were less likely to say
that religion was an important part of their lives than eight years ago.
The ranks of the unaffiliated have been bolstered by former Christians.
Nearly a quarter of people who were raised as Christian have left the group,
and ex-Christians now represent 19 percent of adults.
Attrition was most substantial among mainline Protestants and Roman
Catholics, who have declined in absolute numbers and as a share of the
population since 2007. The acute decline in the Catholic population,
which fell by roughly 3 million, is potentially a new development.
Image from article, with caption: Wednesday afternoon Mass at Holy Name Church in Brooklyn
Most surveys have found that the Catholic share of the population
has been fairly stable over the last few decades, in no small part
because it has been reinforced by migration from Latin America.
Not all religions or even Christian traditions declined so markedly. The
number of evangelical Protestants dipped only slightly as a share of the
population, by 1 percentage point, and actually increased in raw numbers.
Non-Christian faiths, like Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, generally held steady
or increased their share of the population. Over all, non-Christian faiths
represented 5.9 percent of the population, up from 4.7 percent in 2007.
Younger adults have been particularly likely to join the unaffiliated in
recent years. In 2007, 25 percent of 18-to -26-year-olds were unaffiliated; now
34 percent of the same cohort is unaffiliated.
But the unaffiliated share of the population is increasing among older
Americans as well. The Christian share of the population born before 1964 has
dipped by 2 percentage points since 2007.
There are few signs that the decline in Christian America will slow.
Although some might assume that young people will become more religious as
they age, the Pew data gives reason to think otherwise.
“It’s not that they start unaffiliated and become religious,” Mr.
Cooperman said. “In fact, it’s the opposite.”
At the same time, every new cohort has been less affiliated than the last,
with even the youngest millennials proving less affiliated, at 36 percent, than
older millennials, at 34 percent.
The changing religious composition of America has widespread political
and cultural ramifications. Conservatives and Republicans, for example, have
traditionally relied on big margins among white Christians to compensate for
substantial deficits among nonwhite and secular voters. The declining white
share of the population is a well-documented challenge to the traditional
Republican coalition, but the religious dimension of the G.O.P.’s demographic
challenge has received less attention, perhaps because of the dearth of data.
Mr. Romney received 79 percent support among white evangelicals, 59
percent among white Catholics, 54 percent among non-evangelical white
Protestants, but only 33 percent among nonreligious white voters.
But others argue that the relationship between politics and religion might
work the other way: The declining number of self-identified Christians could
be the result of a political backlash against the association of Christianity with
conservative political values.
“The two are now intertwined,” said Mike Hout, a professor of sociology at
New York University. “You can’t use one to predict the other, because if the
Republicans switched to more economic or immigration issues, then perhaps
the rise of the unaffiliated will slow down.”