Pew Report: More Nones, Fewer Protestants

Pew Report: More Nones, Fewer Protestants October 11, 2012

This week’s big religious headline was a Pew Report that documented (among other trends) the rapid rise of religiously non-affiliated Americans (“nones,” colloquially). The ranks of the unaffiliated (comprised of atheists, agnostics, and those with “nothing in particular”) rose from 15.3% of the U.S. population in 2007 to 19.6% in 2012. Although Pew carefully notes that many “nones” maintain belief in God and other markers of religious belief, this is still a large increase in religious non-affiliation.

Pew headlined its report with the rise of the “nones,” but most newspapers led with the fact that Protestants have finally lost their majority status, declining to 48% of the American population in 2012. White evangelicals declined from 21% of the population to 19% over the span of five years (though it seems that this figure simply has been fluctuating between 18 and 21%), and white mainline Protestants declined (more straightforwardly) from 18 to 15% of the population. Catholics appear to be holding steady.

What should one take away from this report? Mark Tooley has an interesting rebuttal at the American Spectator:

The myth that America was once a solidly Christian and church going nation that only recently has secularized is widely believed by religious and secular alike. But the 40 percent of Americans who’ve regularly across the last 80 years at least claimed they attend church regularly is almost certainly higher than church going was in the 19th century, which itself was likely higher than the 18th century, as a footnote in the Pew study briefly admits.

It’s very hard to predict the future. If present trends continue, however, in the coming decades we should expect the continued decline of mainline Protestantism, perhaps a small decline  of white evangelicalism, roughly comparable Catholic membership, and a sharp rise in “nones.” Trends, of course, do not always continue. Since the survey tracks only “white evangelicalism,” that makes it difficult to assess evangelicalism’s future. As evangelicalism continues to become a more racially diverse religious impulse, evangelicals may well hold their own.

I’d love for our readers to help me sort out this report. I’m not a sociologist, so I’m only sharing my hunches. While there are many mitigating factors (such as immigration of religious believers, including Christians in large numbers), I think Americans will, on average, express lower levels of religious belief and practice in the coming decades. Partly this depends on whether the beliefs and practices of young Americans as identified in the Pew Report persist as that cohort ages. Just because all of the predictions of rapid secularization made in the 1930s and 1960s turned out to be incorrect doesn’t mean that religious non-affiliation and disbelief will not continue to grow in future decades.

I’ve only begun to wade through the entirety of the report. Sections on the religious affiliation and beliefs of young Americans are also noteworthy, as are some of the political ramifications of the developments documented by the report.

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  • I’ve argued that the secularization thesis is not entirely incorrect, if we relax (or broaden) what is meant by secularization. Churches have themselves ‘secularized’ as they adapt their theology and emphases and formats to what the norms of the secularized culture surrounding them. Further, Christians themselves are ‘secularized’ more and more as they adopt the thinking and behavior of the increasingly secularized culture. I find, as a professor, that students (Christian or otherwise) are increasingly thinking alike in terms of starting assumptions. Christian assumptions (as a grid),, even for Christians, is simply not the starting point of their thinking as it once was. So in some ways, the decline in affiliation may understate the true extent of secularization in American society.

  • Lou

    Interesting stuff it is. I have been in AA for some 39 years and have been the only admitted atheist for years. Some time in the late nineties, other atheists began to show up in AA and now about 20% of our small group label themselves as theists or agnostics. Unheard of in an organization with religious overtones.

  • “Everybody talks about the weather but no one dos anything about it.”
    This Pew report is nothing new: we’ve been seeing the growth in Nones, and the precipitous decline in mainline Protestant denominations for years. I’ve seen it discussed all over the internet. What puzzles me is why, in all those discussions, no one from those dying mainline denominations is talking about what to do about it. Why aren’t they discussing, and working on recruitment? That should be the priority–to get those bums on pews and their money into the plate to maintain the buildings and keep the services going. Why aren’t they trying?

  • Daniel Lafave

    It’s worth pointing out in rebuttal to Mark Tooley that Americans regularly report much higher church attendance than they actually do. Actual church attendance as opposed to reported church attendance is estimated to be 21%. Among Western nations, only Americans and Canadians misrepresent things. Europeans tend to accurately report their church attendance to survey takers. No one really knows why Americans and Canadians do this.

  • Freeman – Fear of man brings a snare.

    “Pew carefully notes that many “nones” maintain belief in God and other markers of religious belief, this is still a large increase in religious non-affiliation.”

    Seems lots of folks are recognizing and leaving – “The Corrupt Religious System” of today. Many never leave The Church of God. aka The Body of Christ. (I love His Church.) Most have left “The Corrupt Religious System” – That has damaged so many. The 501 (c) 3, Non-Profit, Tax $ Deductible, Religious $ Corporation, the IRS calls church.

    Should His Disciples call an IRS Corporation “His Church?” His ekklesia?

    Corrupt – Dictionary

    1- showing a willingness to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain.

    2- in a state of decay; rotten or putrid.

    3- debased or made unreliable by errors or alterations.

    Hasn’t The Whole Religious System, for 1700 years, been *Totally Corrupt?* With…
    1 – Elder/Overseers who do NOT meet the qualifications found in the Bible?
    …..(1. Must be Blameless. 2. Holy? 3. Just? 4. Rule well their own house? etc.)
    2 – Multiple thousands of denominations – NOT found in the Bible?
    …..(Baptist, Presbyterian., Catholic, Lutheran, Assembly of God. etc.)
    3 – Multiple Movements – NOT found in the Bible?
    …..(Reformed, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Emergent, etc.)
    4 – Abusive Heirarchy – Abusive Authoritarians – NOT found in the Bible?
    …..(Who Exercise Authority like the gentiles and lord it over God’s heritage.)
    5 – Traditions of men – NOT found in the Bible?
    …..(Money as a Tithe, Go to church, Join a church, church membership. etc).
    6 – Titles/Positions – NOT found in the Bible? (Pastor/Leader/Reverend?)
    …..(Clergy, Doctor, Right Reverend, Cardinal, Senior Pastor, Lead Pastor. etc.)

    Isn’t “Today’s System” filled with those having “a willingness to act dishonestly”
    and are after…
    1- “money and personal gain” (Celebrity Pastors, Authors, Conference speakers.)
    3- and make “Today’s Religious System” “unreliable by errors or alterations,”
    to the Bible, how the Bible describes “His Church.” Qualifications for Overseer?
    And because of these errors and alterations to the qualifications of Elder/Overseer
    2- The Corrupt Religious System is in a state of decay; rotten and putrid.

    And folks are leaving by the millions. And turning to Jesus.