New Pew survey shows that Americans are rapidly becoming less Christian and more secular

The Pew Organization conducted surveys for their Religious Landscape Studies in 2007 and 2014, assessing the religiosity, non-religiosity, beliefs, and churchgoing habits of Americans. They continued these surveys last year and this year, though on a more restricted scale. Nevertheless, the new Pew Survey, whose summary you can see by clicking on the screenshot below (full pdf here), heartens me, substantiating my theory (which is not mine alone) that America is becoming less religious all the time. What surprises me, as you can see in the headline below, is that the decline in the last 12 years is so fast. 

I’ll give some salient data and graphs below. First, the take-home message from the report (my emphasis):

The religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid clip. In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.

Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.

I’m lumping together the atheists, agnostics, and “nothings in particulars” as “nonbelievers,” and that group has risen 9% in 9 years. While self-described atheists are at only 4%, it’s still a statistically significant rise from 2% ten years ago, and of course we know how reluctant Americans are in telephone polls like these to say they are atheists. I suspect the real number of people who don’t accept the existence of a god is much higher. Here are two plots from the survey:

I suspect, in the graph above, that “nothing in particular” pretty much means “nonreligious”, and that’s gone up 5% in just 10 years.

As in Europe, church attendance in the U.S. is dropping pretty rapidly:

The graph below shows that the secularization results not so much from people changing their minds as they age, but that each cohort becomes successively less religious than the last. Nonbelief in America spreads over the bodies of dead believers.

There are other results as well, none of them giving hope to people who think religion in America is here to stay. The “nones” have increased from 39 million in 2009 to 68 million in 2018/2019, while Christians have dropped from 178 million to 167 million over the same period. Non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc.) have increased by only 2% over the same period—from 5% to 7%.

Women remain more religious than men, but both sexes are growing less religious. Republicans are still more Christian than are Democrats (79% versus 55% respectively), but both have dropped significantly in religiosity (Republicans were 86% Christian in 2009, Democrats 72%). 34% of Democrats are unaffiliated, while only 16% of Republicans are. As expected, the GOP could be termed “God’s Own Party.”

Finally, Black and Hispanic Democrats remain significantly more religious than White Democrats, while—the only “bad news” in the survey—there’s been no decline in the proportion of Protestants who describe themselves as “born again or evangelical” (about 60%, higher than I would have thought).

Overall, then the news is good—but only if you’re a nonbeliever.

 

h/t: cesar

55 Comments

  1. JezGrove
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Good news! And not in the gospel sense…

  2. GBJames
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Hallelujah!

  3. Nicholas K.
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Well, that’s what such blatant hypocrisy will get you.

  4. Bruce Lilly
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    “While self-described atheists are at only 4%, it’s still a statistically significant rise from 2% ten years ago, and of course we know how reluctant Americans are in telephone polls like these to say they are atheists. I suspect the real number of people who don’t accept the existence of a god is much higher.”

    That’s an ongoing issue with polls/surveys. One recent study used Bayesian techniques to estimate the number of atheists at around 26% (https://www.atheists.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/How-Many-Atheists-Are-There-Gervais.pdf). Pew, in a separate study asked specifically about belief, avoiding the labelling issue, and came up with at least 10% atheists (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/25/key-findings-about-americans-belief-in-god/).

  5. Posted October 18, 2019 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    i don’t think you can conclude that later generations are less religious than older generations and that religion will go away as one generation replaces the next from Pew’s data. It is a snapshot at a point in time, and the millennials are young while the baby boomers are old. You would need longitudinal data that compares answers from baby boomers given when they were young to compare to answers from millennials today. I am not saying it is not happening, just that you cannot conclude it from this data. For all we know, millennials will get religion as they age.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      “For all we know, millennials will get religion as they age.”
      You could just as well have said: “For all we know, millennials will get less religious as they age.”
      I agree we simply don’t know.
      However, I know many more people who uswd to be religious and became atheist, than the other way round, although I admit that is obviously anecdotal.

      • Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        I agree, but that is people changing their minds. I hope it is both people changing their minds and generational change.

      • Jean Marc
        Posted October 18, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        According to this very articulate British scientist, this issue is settled :
        “Is it the case that people become more religious as they get older ? Well we have survey data going back decades [that conclude] No, on average, people within a given generation don’t change across the adult life course. So, what we are seing is not the effect of age but permanent generation gaps”

        4:20 in
        Why there is no way back for religion in the West | David Voas | TEDxUniversityofEssex

  6. Historian
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    “Finally, Black and Hispanic Democrats remain significantly more religious than White Democrats, while—the only “bad news” in the survey—there’s been no decline in the proportion of Protestants who describe themselves as “born again or evangelical” (about 60%, higher than I would have thought).”

    It is not particularly bad news that within the Protestant ranks there has not been a decline in the percentage that describes themselves as evangelicals. This is because Protestants in general have declined as a proportion of the U.S. population. As Pew puts it:

    “The data shows that both Protestants who describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians and Protestants who are not born-again or evangelical have declined as a share of the overall U.S. adult population, reflecting the country’s broader shift away from Christianity as a whole. However, looking only at Americans who identify as Protestants – rather than at the public as a whole – the share of all Protestants who are born-again or evangelical is at least as high today as it was in 2009.”

    The trends described in the Pew report have not been lost upon to the declining number of ardent Christians. They are now in a panic having become paranoid and feeling persecuted. They have latched on to Trump (not worrying that he is the most un-Christian person imaginable) and the Republican Party. Due to the way the American political system works and because they vote in disproportionate numbers to the rest of the population, they have undue influence on American governance in all three branches of government. So, as their numbers decline, their attempts to impose a theocratic system on the rest of America will continue unabated. It may take many decades before their poison is purged from the American system, particularly in the judiciary in general and the Supreme Court most importantly.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that is absolutely remarkable: the population gets less religious, but the courts, especially the SC, becomes more so.
      You explain how, but it still is weird.

  7. Blue
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    One more time again I am thinking upon
    Mr Prine’s lovely and sadly true
    “Some Humans Ain’t Human” of thus
    http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnprine/somehumansainthuman.html and
    thus http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lB2E6RX7W44 and

    ” You might go to church
    And sit down in a pew
    Those humans who ain’t human
    Could be sittin’ right next to you
    They talk about your family
    They talk about your clothes
    When they don’t know their own ass
    From their own elbows ”

    remaining reclusive … … thus.
    Blue

  8. Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Given that the decline in religiosity parallels a decline in trust of authority and authority figures generally, including science and scientists, I’m not inclined to view it all that optimistically.

    A survey cited in Scientific American (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/dis-trust-in-science/) shows that “According to a 2017 survey, only 35 percent of respondents have ‘a lot’ of trust in scientists; the number of people who do ‘not at all’ trust scientists increased by over 50 percent from a similar poll conducted in December 2013.” (Which means that over half of the people reading these statistics aren’t going to believe them anyway!)

    S.A. laments this lack of trust in science and chalks it up to misinformation on the Internet. I’m inclined to think it has more to do with a suspicion that the sources of information generally are polluted by political bias and ideological agendas.

    In any case, this perceived lack of having a trustworthy source of public information seems to me a much broader and more serious problem than declining trust in either religion or science.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 18, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      I should think the loss of trust in “public information” has much to do with the rise of the internet in general, and social media in particular. Who the hell knows what to trust out there? And it’s not like we’ve got Walter Cronkite every weeknight to tells us “and that’s the way it is” anymore.

      • Posted October 18, 2019 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        And even if we did, people would scream “fake news.”

      • Historian
        Posted October 18, 2019 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        This lack of trust has been exacerbated by Trump’s and the right wing’s bellowing about fake news and the “lamestream media” and the thousands of lies Trump has told.

        A democracy is in deep trouble when the citizenry cannot trust its leaders to the extent it exists now. A skepticism of what government does is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is a tipping point, which we may have already reached, where the distrust is so great that the governmental system could collapse.

      • Posted October 18, 2019 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

        “Who the hell knows what to trust out there?”

        Well, there’s always Wikipedia: “Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject, so you know you’re getting the best possible information.” —Michael Scott, “The Office”

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    … America is becoming less religious all the time. What surprises me, as you can see in the headline below, is that the decline in the last 12 year is so fast.

    Trumpism is in a sense the bleat of this shrinking religious demographic, the opium of a resentful people.

    Trump was going at it full speed during his Nuremberg rally in Texas last night, feeding the paranoia of his followers, telling them that “the Democrat [sic] Party” and the “fake-news media” not only “hate America,” but are persecuting Christians across the country.

    • Mark R.
      Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      And I wouldn’t doubt that this Christian demagoguery will do nothing to strengthen their support, or garner new support. The evangelical’s blind devotion to Trump will do more harm to their long-term survival than if they turned on him. For those who are religious but not in the cult, Trump’s followers seem like rabid, hate-filled lunatics. I’m sure it turns many off from Christianity completely, and for we atheists, it just solidifies our conclusion that g*d is a fabricated joke, and we look on with disgust at the fools who follow folly.

  10. Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Coupla years ago I visited the beautiful cathedral of Ely, near London. A service started, and I was the only congregation. I do love church music and church architecture, and so enjoyed the ten minute service. But, in chatting to the very reverend, I cheekily let slip that I was an atheist, but enjoyed the service anyway.
    C’mon, atheists… Let’s keep the whole sorry scam going…Visit your local church!

    • Posted October 18, 2019 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      Several years ago, I was sent to teach in Italy. The first evening, the local priest came during the supper and personally invited us and the students to the service. The poor man seemed to want a congregation so much that I considered visiting. But my colleagues talked me out of it. They pointed out that if I gave in once, he would keep inviting me.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      I’ve been to Ely too – lovely building, fascinating fossils in the stonework, particularly the main door as I remember (I borked the camera card and messed up the photos, as I recall), beautiful stained glass work. I felt no reason to listen to someone wittering on in a backwards collar.

    • Posted October 22, 2019 at 6:45 am | Permalink

      Ely is nowhere near London! When I was a chorister at Norwich we had a three choirs festival with them & Peterborugh.

      It is near Cambridge… besides that, everyone knows fen people have webbed feet.

      • Posted October 25, 2019 at 3:33 am | Permalink

        It’s nearer London than it is to me (Lincoln).

        Since adulthood, I’ve lived or worked in three cities, all of which have impressive cathedrals: Durham, York and Lincoln.

        🐜

    • DavidB
      Posted October 23, 2019 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      Ely is also home to Cromwell’s house, which is a very interesting visit.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I suspect the real number of people who don’t accept the existence of a god is much higher.

    I suspect that the number of people who don’t give much thought to the matter, including among the putatively religious, is higher still. I think most people don’t see such questions as having much direct impact on their day-to-day lives. Even those who regularly attend church don’t do it as a means of communing with a deity, so much as out of an obligation to demonstrate belief in believing, or because they value the fellowship they experience at such services.

    • Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Yes. I think atheists think about God more than the religious folk do. To them, church is a Sunday social.

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      I agree Ken, in my 14 years of living in suburban Tennessee I observed a lot of “conspicuous christianity” but it always seemed more of a social than a spiritual lubricant. Not saying that there were not a number of more sincere religious people, but I doubt they were a majority.

      • Rita Prangle
        Posted October 18, 2019 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
        • Simon Hayward
          Posted October 18, 2019 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

          That looks horrible – I suppose one of the benefits of growing up in England is that I never had religion so I’ve never missed it.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted October 18, 2019 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      In the UK, the average Sunday church attendance in the CofE is now 27: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7586379/Typical-church-just-27-people-turning-worship-congregation-numbers-fall.html And even where it is more, a lot of those are parents trying to game the system in order to get their kids into the best local school (disgracefully, church schools are still allowed to discriminate in favour of churchgoers’ children when allocating places).

      The whole thing stinks. I live in hope that, one day, one of our political parties might tumble to the fact that there could be quite a few votes in pledging to abolish religious privilege in this country!

  12. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    The problem with averages in all this data is it appears to be nationwide. Therefore, where does any of it actually apply. It is still a very much east coast/west coast thing and urban vs. rural. Just like the parties. If you live in Chicago or Boston, there are non-religious people all around you. The numbers are probably far higher than the averages stated. But go to a rural state, there are lots of them and see what you get. Good luck if you can even find someone who will say they have no religion.

    • Posted October 18, 2019 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      I have been saying for a long time (since about the Trump election) that the sparsely populated US regions need an “invasion” from the urban centers.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted October 18, 2019 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        I think what you are saying is, they need a lot of education.

        • Posted October 18, 2019 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

          No. They may need more education, but who am I to say so? But US citizens are free to settle wherever in the USA they wish, register there and vote.

      • Posted October 18, 2019 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        I thought of that too. Just a hundred thousand or so liberals from California could flip Wyoming.

  13. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    This all makes the rise in Christian Nationalism so much more tyrannical than it already was if you go by its agenda and beliefs along.

  14. Roger
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Still seems pretty low considering how obviously their religion is baloney.

  15. Jon Gallant
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Pew’s researchers have not devised a category for my own spiritual community, which is known as Kosher Goyim. Our motto is “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they eat”. What we tell the world is: “One smeck of our rugelach, and you will be born again, again.”

  16. Posted October 18, 2019 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I am surprised that the share of Catholics is diminishing, despite the large-scale immigration from traditionally Catholic (and considered pious) Latin America. Any explanation? Do the Latino immigrants secularize en masse once they settle in the USA? Or maybe they have been not so religious to begin with, but the atheists have been forced to stay in the closet in their homelands?

    • GBJames
      Posted October 18, 2019 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      Or perhaps the scale of the “invasion” has been exaggerated.

      • Posted October 18, 2019 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

        The “invasion” maybe, but not the immigration. I mean, I am talking now not only about the illegal immigration (“invasion”) but also about the legal immigration, because both processes will supposedly increase the number of Catholics. And also the number of Spanish speakers. In many US communities, Spanish has become a second (if not the first) language. This proves that immigration has been massive, and many of the immigrants have kept their language. That’s why I am surprised that, according to the cited study, they apparently have not kept their religion. With Arab and other Muslim immigrants to Europe, the situation is quite opposite – the 2nd generation tends to abandon the language but (unfortunately) keeps the religion.

        • GBJames
          Posted October 18, 2019 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

          Apparently numbers of immigrant faithful aren’t as great as the overall losses due to scandal and general recovery-from-faith.

          • loren russell
            Posted October 18, 2019 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

            Additionally, a sizable fraction of poor rural people in Mexico and Central America have converted to various evangelical Protestant denominations — after decades of missionary/proselytizing by American churches. The organizers of the amnesty trains last year included several Protestant pastors — at some of whom believed the migration was god’s will..

        • GBJames
          Posted October 21, 2019 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

          They just ain’t as Catholic as they used to be.

          https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/pf_10-17-19_rdd_update-00-09/

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 18, 2019 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        I was going to say the same thing. From Googling Hispanics are 11-18% of the population of the US. Catholics were never a majority religion to start with in the US. In Canada, it’s quite the opposite with the majority religion being Catholicism at close to 40%

  17. rickflick
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I think the cause of this ongoing shift is mostly media. Beginning with Radio and TV, people were exposed to the wider culture and could see there was a broad spectrum of options for thinking about religion. The internet sped that process up. When I was in grade school, I thought I was the only atheist in town. Young people today are not as culturally isolated, even if they live in a small town. Now, nearly all cities have unbeliever groups and communities.

  18. A C Harper
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    There’s a general complaint (by the ‘experts’) that people don’t trust experts as much as they used to. There are all sorts of reasons why this might be so… but how are ‘Men of God’ (they are almost all men) going to ‘prove’ their expertise?

    A few well documented miracles could go a long way… but strangely none have been reliably captured on YouTube or social media despite the millions of cameras/mobile phones in use. I wonder why?

  19. Posted October 18, 2019 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    These are happy plots. Lifting my spirits.

    Science is corrosive to religion, and that’s a good thing. S. Weinberg

    We are seeing that fewer people can escape science. And simultaneously, hermetic nature of religion is crumbling.

    Those who control knowledge control the universe. And news is getting out: religion is boring. Science is kind of interesting, even if people don’t fully understand it.

  20. Posted October 18, 2019 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, the decline in religiosity does not equate with rise in rationality. It would be interesting to find out if the decrease in religious belief trends with rise in socialism and climate alarmism.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 19, 2019 at 12:16 am | Permalink

      “Unfortunately, the decline in religiosity does not equate with rise in rationality”

      I suspect that it actually does, to some degree. People who say they are no longer religious must actually think about the philosophical implications. They don’t do so because it is trendy. It may be they are becoming more educated, in the sense that they are exposed to a wider world – cyberspace being one aspect of that. Also, educational attainment rates among 25 to 29 year olds increased over the last 20 years.

  21. Mark Perew
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  22. rgsherr
    Posted October 19, 2019 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    I suppose the slight decline in religiosity is good news, but I doubt it will last. We’re living in pretty good times. I suspect when that changes religiosity will shoot up again. Most people can’t get along without Santa Claus.

  23. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    church attendance in the U.S. is dropping pretty rapidly:

    What is going to happen to the buildings, fixtures and fittings when a church organisation loses so much membership that they cannot continue to maintain the structures?
    I would guess that, these being non-established religions, the quick answer is “what it says in each organisation’s constitution / rule book”, but that just moves the problem further down the line. Do any/ many of these groups have an actual “winding up” procedure?
    Far be it from me to suggest joining one’s local church specifically in order to ask awkward questions at the AGM (do they do member’s/ owner’s AGMs?) and force the organisation to address it’s own mortality. It might be more fun than pulling the wings off flies, but it might also be interminable boredom.
    There is value in those buildings ; a cunning pastor might crash the church’s membership in order to leave them in sole control of those assets. Cynical? Moi?


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