Latest Pew Research religious survey brings some good news.

It appears that there’s a fair bit of turmoil in America in terms of religious affiliation. Not only are more people leaving the faith they were born in for a different one, but the number of unaffiliated people—sometimes referred to as the “unchurched”—is also on the rise:

Pew Research Center: The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey Reveals a Fluid and Diverse Pattern of Faith

An extensive new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life details the religious affiliation of the American public and explores the shifts taking place in the U.S. religious landscape. Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans age 18 and older, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey finds that religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid.

More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion—or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, roughly 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.

The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.

A quarter of the younger generation are unchurched. While that doesn’t mean they don’t hold some God belief it’s still very good news as those folks tend to be the most likely to eventually give up said belief and become atheists in the long run. The good news doesn’t end there, though:

The Landscape Survey confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country; the number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51%. Moreover, the Protestant population is characterized by significant internal diversity and fragmentation, encompassing hundreds of different denominations loosely grouped around three fairly distinct religious traditions—evangelical Protestant churches (26.3% of the overall adult population), mainline Protestant churches (18.1%) and historically black Protestant churches (6.9%).

You can bet that’s going to have more than a few Protestant leader’s panties all in a bunch. Expect to hear alarm bells ringing in churches all across America if this trend continues. The Catholics aren’t faring much better either:

While those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic.

These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration. The Landscape Survey finds that among the foreign-born adult population, Catholics outnumber Protestants by nearly a two-to-one margin (46% Catholic vs. 24% Protestant); among native-born Americans, on the other hand, Protestants outnumber Catholics by an even larger margin (55% Protestant vs. 21% Catholic). Immigrants are also disproportionately represented among several world religions in the U.S., including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

This gives me hope that Americans aren’t as stupid as they sometimes seem to be. I’ve said before that after the scale of the Catholic pedophile priests scandal became clear that I couldn’t understand how anyone could accept the Catholic church as any kind of moral authority. It seems that scandal may have had quite the impact on Catholics deciding to leave the faith behind.

Of more interest to me, however, is the overview on the aforementioned unchurched population:

Like the other major groups, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (16.1%) also exhibit remarkable internal diversity. Although one-quarter of this group consists of those who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (1.6% and 2.4% of the adult population overall, respectively), the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is made up of people who simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” This group, in turn, is fairly evenly divided between the “secular unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the “religious unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8% of the overall adult population).

This is good news indeed and will probably mean that we’ll see more and more people, particularly from the “secular unaffiliated” group, come around to identifying themselves as atheists or agnostics at some point in time. Best of all, the unaffiliated group is growing in size:

The survey finds that constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents. Those that are growing as a result of religious change are simply gaining new members at a faster rate than they are losing members. Conversely, those that are declining in number because of religious change simply are not attracting enough new members to offset the number of adherents who are leaving those particular faiths.

To illustrate this point, one need only look at the biggest gainer in this religious competition—the unaffiliated group. People moving into the unaffiliated category outnumber those moving out of the unaffiliated group by more than a three-to-one margin. At the same time, however, a substantial number of people (nearly 4% of the overall adult population) say that as children they were unaffiliated with any particular religion but have since come to identify with a religious group. This means that more than half of people who were unaffiliated with any particular religion as a child now say that they are associated with a religious group. In short, the Landscape Survey shows that the unaffiliated population has grown despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all “religious” groups.

So, yeah, some unaffiliated people, and even some atheists, do eventually switch to being believers, but at least we’re gaining more than we’re losing and doing so at a rate higher than any other group. A few more of the highlights I found interesting include:

  • Men are significantly more likely than women to claim no religious affiliation. Nearly one-in-five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly 13% of women.
  • Mormons and Muslims are the groups with the largest families; more than one-in-five Mormon adults and 15% of Muslim adults in the U.S. have three or more children living at home.
  • The Midwest most closely resembles the religious makeup of the overall population. The South, by a wide margin, has the heaviest concentration of members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Northeast has the greatest concentration of Catholics, and the West has the largest proportion of unaffiliated people, including the largest proportion of atheists and agnostics.
  • People not affiliated with any particular religion stand out for their relative youth compared with other religious traditions. Among the unaffiliated, 31% are under age 30 and 71% are under age 50. Comparable numbers for the overall adult population are 20% and 59%, respectively.
  • In sharp contrast to Islam and Hinduism, Buddhism in the U.S. is primarily made up of native-born adherents, whites and converts. Only one-in-three American Buddhists describe their race as Asian, while nearly three-in-four Buddhists say they are converts to Buddhism.

Good stuff and the full report can be read here for those of you who want the nitty gritty details.

3 thoughts on “Latest Pew Research religious survey brings some good news.

  1. Is it possible that the atheist population is unreported because of a misconception of what “atheist” means? Many people think it means something more than simply one who has no belief in God.

    I’ve personally had many of my friends try to convince me that I’m not atheist but agnostic. On further questioning it becomes clear that they dont really understand exactly what “atheist” and “agnostic” actually mean.

    Is the situation similar in the Western world ( the US in particular)?

  2. Julian makes a good point, atheism still has a strong negative association. It’s why we need to make sure we are getting the message out.

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