Known for being one of the more religious countries in the world, especially in comparison with old world Europe, the United States has experienced an alarming dip in religiosity in the past seven years, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.
The only religions to grow in the period from 2007 to 2014 were Islam, which was up a half percent, Hinduism, up 0.3 percent, and the ambiguous category of “other religions,” comprising everything from Baha’i to Wicca to Satanism.
The religious category to take the biggest hit was Christianity, especially mainline Christianity and Catholicism, which fell 3.4 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively. Though the United States is still a statistically “Christian nation,” with some 70 percent of Americans identifying themselves as Christian, it is markedly less so than even a generation ago.
In 2007, Americans were 78.4 percent Christian whereas in 2014—just seven years later—the figure had dropped to 70.6 percent. Some of the smaller constituencies, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, remained virtually unchanged, while the larger denominations saw significant decreases.
Evangelicalism saw smaller losses than others, dropping slightly less than one percent of its adherents during this period. Those identifying as Evangelicals fell from 26.3 to 25.4 percent for a loss of 0.9 percent .
Though considered “unchanged” for the statistical record, Judaism experienced nominal growth in the intervening years, moving from 1.7 percent of the population to 1.9 percent.
As more Americans have shed their religious attachments, the ranks of the unaffiliated or “nones” have swollen correspondingly, moving from just 16.1 percent of the U.S. population in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014. Outright atheists nearly doubled, growing from a slim 1.6 percent of the population to 3.1 percent, while those espousing “nothing in particular” experienced a 3.7 percent growth, from 12.1 to 15.8 percent of the nation.
The report was quick to insist that despite changes, “the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world,” but the massive survey of some 35,000 respondents showed a downward spiral of traditional religion that could forebode even more significant losses in the future.
A contributing factor to the downward trend is the age difference between religious and non-religious Americans. The members of traditional Christian faiths are getting older, while the unaffiliated are comparatively young, “and getting younger, on average, over time.” In 2014, the median age of unaffiliated adults was only 36, down from 38 in 2007 and significantly lower than the general adult population’s median age of 46.4. Mainline Protestant adults, on the other hand, now average 52 years of age (up from 50 in 2007), while Catholic adults are 49 years old on average, up from 45 seven years earlier.
The Religious Landscape Studies carried out by the Pew Research Center made use of two virtually identical surveys in 2007 and 2014, in order to be able to compare the religious demographics of Americans with greater accuracy. They also made use of very large sample groups to lower the margin of error for the study. The broad swath of the population involved also allowed for greater detail in describing the change in numbers of small religious groups that account for just one percent or two percent of the U.S. population.
Whether people find these results positive, negative or indifferent, they are undoubtedly significant and signal a marked change in America’s religious identity.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter: @tdwilliamsrome