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

  1. lynchie says:

    More dramatically that is over 62% reduction.

  2. SabrinaDRichardson says:

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  3. mark_in_toronto says:

    What do people expect?
    Look what organized religion is doing to their fellow humans.

  4. FLL says:

    The 8% drop probably represents people who have genuinely changed their minds about religion. Outside of that, I think there has always been a second group within the 70% Christian population who are Christian-identified not because of genuine religious faith, but because they think it gives them an excuse to support government discrimination against gay people. Two examples of major government benefits are serving 4 years in the armed forces and receiving veteran’s benefits for the rest of your life, and the legal benefits and rights tied to getting married. That, in addition to possible lack of legal protection against being fired for being gay, amounts to a lot. Now that all these opportunities for government-sponsored hate either have disappeared or are disappearing, there is less incentive for this second group of “Christians” to attend church services regularly. I doubt if people in the second group will ever tell others that they are now unaffiliated because their reason would be too embarrassing, but I think they will just stop going to church.

    Of course, my guess assumes that people sometimes lie about their motives and misrepresent themselves. Now who would ever believe that, fellow readers?

  5. Buford says:

    I’ll state the obvious… this makes perfect sense considering that technology has made information readily available which shows the true, dark, ridiculous nature of organized religion. Not only can people confirm that your faith’s ‘facts’ are laughable, but they can also read daily of the ridiculous, political hypocrisy being perpetrated in the name of organized religion.

    A person can still choose to be as spiritual as they want to be, but it’s plain that it is no longer necessary to ‘join’ to be happy.

  6. mf_roe says:

    Recognizing the fraud of Organized Religion is simple, understanding the lack of “Purpose” for inconsequential elements is Hard. The Greatest Human Mind is as irrelevant in the cosmos as a single hydrogen atom. Accepting the concept that we don’;t matter to anything other than ourselves scares the fuck out of most people.

  7. Indigo says:

    But they describe themselves as “religious” because it’s socially or politically advantageous to them. You’re right. The situation is much like the one in Japan where it’s just a matter of a traditional practice but Americans need to add that strange hyperbole that they’re “religious” when in fact they’re merely posturing for the gossip column.

  8. dcinsider says:

    Many churchgoers are what I call “cultural catholics” or “cultural protestants.” They attend because it is the social thing to do. They attend because they were raised in that denomination and everyone goes.

    The reality is many churchgoers are nonbelievers. However, most have not done the deep insight into their own practices. If they did, this country would be 50% atheist. Suffice to say that the pews are filled with nonbelievers.

  9. Hue-Man says:

    I long ago applied Occam’s Razor to the question and concluded that a universe or multi-verses without a deity could explain the universe better than a universe with one. Hint: Who created the Creator?

    The other, more human factor, is that almost all religions claim exclusive ownership of truth; they can’t ALL be right so it’s nearly certain that ALL are wrong. None of them would entertain a March Madness face-off and not only because they couldn’t agree on a “neutral” referee!

    I do wonder about Western culture which incorporates biblical myths into many aspects of language and art. If kids aren’t learning their bible stories, how can they recognize these symbols when they read books or visit art museums? Will Santa Claus be the only survivor in 2050?

    “In 1986, nearly half (48%) of Quebec residents said they attended religious services at least once a month. By 2011, about one-in-six Quebecers (17%) reported attending religious services at least once a month, a drop of 31 points.”

  10. 2patricius2 says:

    Good news of great joy.

  11. Indigo says:

    The Japanese regularly describe themselves as non-religious, but the temples and shrines are full. What’s that about? They say it’s traditional, cultural practice and leave it at that. I’d say that’s a fairly sensible approach, unlike our Americano obsession with attempting to quantify private behavior.

  12. Indigo says:

    Indeed it is, a market. You see that regularly as people wander in and out of temples and synagogues, churches and mosques and nemetons, shopping around for something that fits. It’s not easy, expressing spirituality within the social contexts available.

  13. Indigo says:

    Coming to awareness and acting on it by walking away is not a failure. Congratulations to you and to all other “failed catholics.” You’re not failures, you woke up.

  14. dcinsider says:

    Cannot be quick enough for me.

  15. Bill_Perdue says:

  16. lynchie says:

    I lost the last of my feelings for the catholic church when the congregation found out the local priest had been molesting young boys for decades and the church new about it. I was a failed catholic because of the church’s refusal to change and become more tolerant especially of women but the molesting and cover up finished me.

    The belief that you have to go to church and have somebody explain a book of fiction is brain washing. It is all about money on the part of all religions and there is little done for poverty, the elderly or the disabled.

  17. nomorehypocrisy says:

    Shame that evangelicals is the one group holding steady.

  18. olandp says:

    As long as the Pat Robertsons, the Tony Perkinsons, the Rick Warrens, et al keep talking they will continue to lose market share. And it is a market.

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