How Low Will It Go? The Continuing Decline of American Christianity

VForVictory

The Pew Research Center has released a huge new survey of the American religious landscape, showing how the demographics have shifted from 2007 to 2014. And the lede is very, very good for us:

[A] major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.

As Pew points out, the non-religious as a whole now outnumber every individual Christian denomination in America – including the Catholic church, which was formerly the single largest religious demographic, but which has been hit hard by deconversions, losing more than six members for each new convert. Evangelicals have grown very slightly in absolute number, but have declined as a percentage share of the population as a whole.

I’ve often written about the promise of the Millennial generation (my own!), including the remarkable fact that we’re growing less religious as we get older – something that until now was unprecedented in American history. The new survey confirms both the demographic importance and decreasing religiosity of Millennials:

One of the most important factors in the declining share of Christians and the growth of the “nones” is generational replacement. As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations. Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33)… About a third of older Millennials (adults currently in their late 20s and early 30s) now say they have no religion, up nine percentage points among this cohort since 2007, when the same group was between ages 18 and 26.

But here’s what I found most remarkable: Although younger generations are less religious than their precursors, that’s not the only driver of Americans’ increasingly secular attitudes. Older generations, too, are showing a slight but detectable dip in religiosity.

Nearly a quarter of Generation Xers now say they have no particular religion or describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, up four points in seven years. Baby Boomers also have become slightly but noticeably more likely to identify as religious “nones” in recent years.

Again, this is without precedent as far as I know. It’s a tempting speculation that the increasing influence of younger, more secular Americans has cleared the way for older generations to be more honest with themselves and others, to entertain doubts they otherwise might not have been comfortable admitting. In a culture where religion is increasingly viewed as a choice rather than an immutable necessity, the people who only joined a church because they thought they had to to fit in will be more comfortable coming out into the open.

Of course, the usual caveats apply: not all the “nones” are nonbelievers per se. Some are deists, New Age believers, or disaffected members of traditional religions. But even here, there’s a finding worth reporting: Within the larger set of the “nones”, the subset who explicitly identify as atheist or agnostic is also growing.

In 2007, 25% of the “nones” called themselves atheists or agnostics; 39% identified their religion as “nothing in particular” and also said that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important in their lives; and 36% identified their religion as “nothing in particular”… The new survey finds that the atheist and agnostic share of the “nones” has grown to 31%.

To put it another way: in 2007, about 4% of all Americans identified as atheist or agnostic. As of 2014, that number is now slightly more than 7%. This is more than the total number of all non-Christian believers in America combined. (It’s also worth pointing out that past surveys have consistently found that the number of Americans who are atheists, based on their stated beliefs, is greater than the number who are willing to call themselves atheists – meaning the real number is almost certainly even higher.) It’s very likely that the increasing diversity of the atheist community accounts for some of this growth.

How is America’s religious right taking the news of their declining numbers and influence? About as well as you might imagine. Rick Santorum says it’s because there aren’t enough anti-choice politicians, Rush Limbaugh said it was the fault of “gay activists” who were able to “bully and steamroll an entire country”, while Bill O’Reilly even more hilariously blamed it on the “rap industry“. As with many apologists, they’re institutionally blind to how their own insistent politicization of religion has turned people off.

One marginally more interesting response comes from “New Atheist God-hater”-hater Damon Linker, who insists, in all seriousness, that religion in America is doing just fine because even nones sometimes say “God bless you” when someone sneezes:

How many of the more aggressively secular ever find themselves lapsing into God-talk — musing, for example, about how everything happens for a reason? Or how a painful event or act of suffering was “meant to be”?

…their providential words and thoughts betray them, revealing that deep down they feel they need metaphysics in order to make sense of their moral convictions and experiences. And that is a sign, I would argue, that religion (or potential religion) maintains a more powerful grip on their souls than the results of the Pew poll would lead one to expect.

I wouldn’t object to apologists who point out that, even after the Pew results, a supermajority of Americans still describe themselves as Christian. Nor would I disagree if someone were to say there’s no proof this trend of religious decline will continue indefinitely, or that the churches still have time to figure out how to alter their message and adapt.

But their actual response consists of different flavors of denial: either that there are sinister outside forces working against them and nothing is their fault, or that religion is doing just fine as it is and doesn’t need to change. In different ways, both of these responses fail to confront the true scope of the problem. And that intellectual evasion, that mass turning-away of gazes, is doubtless why the decline of religion has accelerated in the last seven years. How much lower it will sink, I don’t claim to know – but I am certain that the defenders of religion, both left and right, don’t have a prayer of reversing it unless they face up to the problem more honestly and forthrightly than they’ve been willing to so far.

Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.