We’re Number One: The Non-Religious Take the Lead

We’re Number One: The Non-Religious Take the Lead April 10, 2019

For years, I’ve been charting the slow decline of religion in America and the rise of nonbelief. It’s a trend that has no precedent in history, and it’s one of the most hopeful signs pointing toward a more rational, more peaceful and more tolerant future for humanity.

Now there’s a new data point to report, and it’s a big one. According to the latest U.S. data, the nonreligious have surged into the lead:

According to newly released General Social Survey data analyzed by Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University, Americans claiming “no religion” — sometimes referred to as “nones” because of how they answer the question “what is your religious tradition?” — now represent about 23.1 percent of the population, up from 21.6 percent in 2016. People claiming evangelicalism, by contrast, now represent 22.5 percent of Americans, a slight dip from 23.9 percent in 2016.

That makes the two groups statistically tied with Catholics (23 percent) as the largest religious — or nonreligious — groupings in the country.

Read that again: The non-religious are now as large as evangelicals or Catholics. We’re in a statistical tie for first place! Here’s how it looks on a graph:

The GSS survey found that evangelicals have declined 1.5% since 2016, although that’s within the margin of error, and Catholics have declined 3%. Meanwhile, the nonreligious are the only group that shows consistent demographic growth, continuing the trend of the last 25 years.

Because the nonreligious also tend to be younger and more liberal, this heralds a realignment of American politics. We’ve already seen hints of this in the way that marriage equality went from furiously controversial to near-universal acceptance in just a few years, and we can expect a continuing decline of other social-conservative viewpoints based on dogma and fundamentalism.

Christianity Today, unsurprisingly, tries to spin the news in a positive way by claiming that evangelicals are “holding steady” (which isn’t what the data shows – more accurately, you’d have to say that we can’t be sure if they’re holding steady or declining slowly). However, even they find the trend lines impossible to deny:

The unaffiliated have had a much more dramatic trajectory, starting at just 1 in 20 of GSS respondents back in 1972. The nones experienced big jumps in 1993 and 1998, and have added, on average, 1-1.5 percentage points every 2 years for the last 10 years.

…If the nones maintain their growth while evangelicals stagnate, it is statistically inevitable that those of no religious faith will be the largest group in America in the next five years.

Why are nones booming while America’s largest religious blocs are all stagnant or shrinking? Well, for one thing, we have an unfair advantage:

As Tobin Grant, editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, pointed out: “Changes in religion are slow. No group gains or loses quickly.” (The “nones,” a popular term for the religiously unaffiliated, being an exception — gaining faster than other affiliations tend to because they pull from multiple faith groups.)

While this is true, it’s a surprising concession for Christianity Today to endorse this idea, because, in theory, Christian apologists could also convert members of many other faiths. The fact that they aren’t succeeding in doing this is a tacit admission that their proselytizing strategy has been a failure.

Another fact that bears on the shift is that America is becoming less white:

One challenge for evangelicals ahead will be simple demography. In 2018, 81 percent of evangelicals were white, compared to 72.4 percent of the population overall. More than 4 in 10 Americans under 25 are people of color. For evangelicals to keep offsetting losses in future generations, they will need to become more racially diverse.

This anodyne language is laughable in light of the glaring fact that evangelical Christianity has embraced a racist and white supremacist political platform. Far from attracting a more diverse crowd, they’ve sealed their long-term fate. As old white bigots die off, they’ll be replaced by younger, more diverse generations who want nothing to do with their flagrant hatred.

The Catholics haven’t been cheerleading for xenophobia, but they’re shooting their own feet in a similar way by continuing to resist LGBT and women’s rights. Like evangelicals, the church hierarchy is stubbornly resisting the tide of moral progress, and they’re cauterizing their own future by doing so.

The most remarkable thing is that, rather than try to correct course while they still can, the Christians who see the path they’re on have glumly embraced it. Historically, their strategy has been to insist that if they just pour more energy into proselytizing, they can prop up their numbers without having to change their problematic doctrines. It doesn’t seem likely that this is going to work again, not when Christianity has lost the veneer of moral authority it once enjoyed, but it’s clear that they have no other ideas – and there’s no miracle coming to save them from the consequences of their evil decisions.

Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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