Pew: Christian share of America declining sharply, “unaffiliated” is fastest-growing group

Late last night, Pew published an extensive new survey on trends in American religious affiliation. Their research finds that between 2007 and 2014, all major Christian denominations saw declines in their share of the American population, with the overall share of Americans identifying as Christian declined from 78.4% to 70.6%. Even Mormons’ share of the American populace declined slightly, from 1.7% to 1.6%. Prior surveys had shown Mormonism to be the fastest-growing religious group in the country.

Meanwhile, “unaffiliated” experienced the largest increase of any group, rising 16.1% to 22.8%. It should be noted, however, that unaffiliated encompasses atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular.” The latter made up the largest subset of the unaffiliated, accounting for 15.8% of Americans. Atheists and agnostics made up 3.1% and 4.0%, respectively.

A greater share of Americans also identify as members of non-Christian faiths, up to 5.9% from 4.7% previously.

Increased religious diversity in America tracks with increasing diversity of the American public overall, both within and between faiths. Christians are a smaller majority of the American population, but whites are also a smaller majority of Christians. Growth in the African-American and latino populations have increased the non-white share of Christian membership from 29% to 34%.

The survey noted that intermarriage has also increased. 39% of marriages conducted since 2010 were of mixed faith, signaling not only a growth in religious diversity, but also a growth in religious acceptance.

Pew cited generational replacement as one of the primary drivers of increased religious diversity. The median age of unaffiliated Americans fell from 38 to 36, and older and younger Millennials identified as unaffiliated at rates of 34% and 36%, respectively. Less than six in ten Americans under the age of 34 identify as Christian.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster, via Sarah Pierce / Flickr

The Flying Spaghetti Monster, via Sarah Pierce / Flickr

However, increasing religious diversity is due to more than generational replacement alone. As Pew notes, ex-Christians make up 19% of the adult American population. Additionally, if one takes Protestants as a single group, “34% of American adults currently have a religious identity different from the one in which they were raised,” a figure that’s six points higher than it was in 2007. If one takes into account adults switching between Protestant denominations, that figure rises to 42%.

Additionally, 18% of Americans “were raised in a religious faith and now identify with no religion.” That’s more than four times the rate at which Americans who were raised with no religion later picked up a religious identity (4.3%).

The unaffiliated are, by and large, not actively seeking a religious organization or faith group. Instead, while they may embrace some religious or spiritual traditions and may even believe in God, what faith they do have remains personal. As Pew has found in prior surveys, the unaffiliated “think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

Given the increased politicization of religion, combined with an increasing American aversion to politics more generally, this should comes as no surprise. To an increasing degree in America, “Christian” is now associated with “socially conservative,” and many who would otherwise identify as Christian are balking at the association. They don’t like being told that being a “real Christian” means wanting the Bible taught in biology class, or endorsed by the American military, or used to decide who can have what kind of contraception.

Despite the Republican Party’s insistence that fertilized egg is more of a person than an adult woman, American Catholics’ opinions on abortion access are evenly divided (even though God is totally pro-choice).

Despite the Republican Party’s insistence that members of the LGBT community shouldn’t have the same rights and protections as everyone else, 60% of Catholics and 62% of mainline Protestants support marriage equality.

And despite the Republican Party’s insistence to the contrary, lots of Christians are uncomfortable with the idea that being a “real Jew” means supporting nativist, anti-democratic, counterproductive policies in the Middle East.

These tensions between politics and religion have contributed to an increase in religious mobility, leading many who would formerly identify with a Christian denomination instead deciding that their personal understanding of their faith is both more appropriate for and more representative of how they wish to conduct their lives.

And as long as the Religious Right — which is neither religious nor right — continues to tell Americans to vote with their Bibles, we should expect this decline in self-identified religiosity to continue.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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