Four Key Findings in the New Pew Survey of America’s Changing Religious Landscape

Well, this should give bloggers plenty of material for a few months: the Pew Research Center has released preliminary findings from the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, based primarily on a national survey of over 35,000 adults. This comes seven years after the first such study and points to some important trends — and at least a couple of notable continuities as well.

Pew Religious Landscape Survey banner image

There’s obviously a lot to chew on here, so I’ll just pull out four findings highlighted in this morning’s announcement:

“The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining…”

This ought to be a surprise to absolutely no one, as several similar surveys have pointed in a similar direction of late. But for the record, 70.6% of those surveyed identified as Christian, down from 78.4% in 2007. That’s about 5 million fewer Americans, during a period when the overall population grew by 18 million. Almost 20% of Americans are now “former Christians.”

Perhaps most notable is the Pew finding that

While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.

“…the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing…”

Although the percentage of religious Americans not identifying with Christianity ticked up from 4.7% to 5.9% (with Muslims making the largest gains, from 0.4% to 0.9%), the major change here is in the realm of the religious “nones” — who now outnumber both Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.

Here too, this cuts across many divides — e.g., the share of nones among men and women has gone up 6-7 points; that’s the same range for most regions of the country, with the Northeast seeing a larger increase (from 16% to 25%). But age is a particularly important factor:

While many U.S. religious groups are aging, the unaffiliated are comparatively young – and getting younger, on average, over time. As a rising cohort of highly unaffiliated Millennials reaches adulthood, the median age of unaffiliated adults has dropped to 36, down from 38 in 2007 and far lower than the general (adult) population’s median age of 46. By contrast, the median age of mainline Protestant adults in the new survey is 52 (up from 50 in 2007), and the median age of Catholic adults is 49 (up from 45 seven years earlier).

About 57% of Millennials identify as Christian, compared to 85% among the Silent Generation born between 1928 and 1945. Gen X (70%) and Baby Boomers (78%) have higher overall identification with Christianity, but there’s also been significant growth in”nones” among the former and, to a lesser extent, the latter.

The Pew authors also found it striking that the “nones” are increasingly likely to identify themselves as “atheist” or “agnostic” (up 6 points, to 31% of the no religious affiliation group), an increase matched by an identical decrease among the nonaffiliated for whom religion was nonetheless somewhat or very important in their lives (36% to 30%).

“…the number of evangelicals may have risen by as many as 5 million or remained essentially unchanged”

It depends on the margin of error, but at the very least, it is noteworthy that evangelical Protestants remain the single largest group, adding an estimated 2 million adults to their numbers since 2007. Now the evangelical share of population did decline just under 1 percentage point (from 26.3% to 25.4%), but that is dwarfed by the decreases for mainline Protestants (losing 5 million, now under 15%) and Catholics (down 3 million, just over 20%). 55% of Protestants are now evangelical.

And evangelicals were the only Christian group to build on their base:

The evangelical Protestant tradition is the only major Christian group in the survey that has gained more members than it has lost through religious switching. Roughly 10% of U.S. adults now identify with evangelical Protestantism after having been raised in another tradition, which more than offsets the roughly 8% of adults who were raised as evangelicals but have left for another religious tradition or who no longer identify with any organized faith.

“Roughly one-in-seven participants in the new survey (15%) were born outside the U.S., and two-thirds of those immigrants are Christians…”

This survey confirms something we’ve noted before at The Pietist Schoolman: the importance of immigration for the future of the church in this country. While recent immigrants are twice as likely as the overall population to adhere to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or another faith besides Christianity, the overwhelming majority are Christian — at levels lower than the general population, but much higher than Millennials. About a quarter of the Christian population in this country is either an immigrant or has at least one parent who was born abroad, with the Orthodox (63%), Catholic (42%), and Jehovah’s Witnesses (33%) populations being even more heavily composed of first- and second-generation immigrants.

3 thoughts on “Four Key Findings in the New Pew Survey of America’s Changing Religious Landscape

  1. Seems like #2 and #4 present opportunities for one’s local congregation. For instance: seeking out immigrant communities for listening to their stories of transition and for potential inclusion. #2 makes me think of a local congregation that presents a local/micro alternative to big corporate mega-churches. U.S. adults may dig that.

  2. Typically Pew’s data gets used to draw qualitative conclusions; is that in any way legitimate? Kierkegard would say no; so too should a sociologist or historian. The assumption that the number of people with certain institutional church affiliations (interestingly Jehovah’s Witnesses but not Mormons and other non-trinitarian restorationists) does not tell you something about “how religious” or “Christian” a country is; it tells you about church affiliation. At best it’s a convenient, minimally adequate measure (for lack of any other) in a quantitative approach to understanding the role of religion in a culture.

    The comparative trend data does suggest some interesting hypotheses that could be and probably have been tested. It seems established confessional and denominational affiliations continue to decline as their members become post-confessional Evangelicals, yet this growth only offsets the number of Evangelicals who embrace another religion or none. Does that suggest an overall process of religious disaffiliation with Evangelicalism as the last stop before the end of the line?

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