Greg Smith of Pew Research and the principle researcher on the massive report released today on America’s Changing Religious Landscape said his number one takeaway from his research is the “pace of continued growth of religiously unaffiliated. The so-called ‘nones’ have been growing for some time but it’s up 7 percent in seven years.” The report reveals that a full 23 percent of the 35,000 Americans surveyed are either atheist, agnostic or simply non-religious. The report also reveals a sharp decline in the share of adults who identify as expressly Christian.
The shifts are in evidence across all regions of the U.S., all socio-economic groups, all age spans, all educational levels, all marital statuses, all races. The largest losses came for mainline Protestants, which lost 5-million adherents in the seven years between 2014 survey and a similar survey conducted in 2007. The second loss leader in 2014 is Roman Catholicism with 3-million fewer adherents.
The factors behind the trends include what Smith called “generational replacement.” That means that fewer young people are adopting the religion of their parents. He said that “nearly one in five adults raised in a faith is now unaffiliated.” That means that Christians in the U.S. have done a very poor job sharing the faith with their own children. Our kids have been evangelized, but not by us.
We will have to wait to learn exactly how beliefs and practices have changed as Americans have migrated away from religious expression and organized Christianity in particular. A second report exploring the beliefs and practices, social and political attitudes of the 35,000 Americans surveyed is expected later this year.
As a teaser, Alan Cooperman, Director of Religion Research for Pew encouraged those unpacking the 250 page report for the media to “look for big causes, not little ones.” About the correlation between the 2007 and the 2014 reports, he acknowledged, “I think what you’re seeing here is reflective of accompanying changes in people’s religious beliefs and practices. As religiously unaffiliated share grows, they also become more secular.”
Dr. John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Instituted of Applied Politics and chair of the Political Science department at the University of Akron concurred. “The changes we’re seeing in identity are bound up in changing religious beliefs and practices.” He sees the shifts as one part “religious dispersion,” one part “religious diversity,” and one part “religious dynamism.”
The report reveals what Green sees as a “new collage of faith in the United States.” Green observes the inherent stress and fragility of such a religious collage where blurred lines and overlapping boundaries can fray. He notes that “the more faiths one has the wider possibility for cooperation and the more occasions for conflict.”
When asked to reflect on the intersection of the findings of the report and the current debates about religious liberty, Green said that “religious freedom has always been a marker of American culture. What is liberty and what is license is a continual conversation.” Based on the diversification of religious affiliation evidenced in the report and “the growth of a secular subculture in America,” Green says we can expect a “period of years in which the question of religious liberty” is debated. “Because of the increasing religious diversity, there are and there will be disagreements about values,” adding that “in the past these have provoked intense conflict.”
Digging down into the weeds of the survey results you can explore the particular shifts among a wide range of groups. Presbyterians appear in two varieties, “mainline” (which correlates to the Presbyterian Church USA) and “evangelical” (which includes the Presbyterian Church in America).
The median age for all Presbyterians rose in the seven years between the 2007 and 2014 reports.
A full 35 percent of mainline Presbyterians are now over 65 years of age. Particularly paltry is the 8 percent of PCUSA adherents between 18-29 years of age. The median age in the PCUSA rose to from 53 to 59.
The PCUSA improved its racial diversity from 91 percent majority white to 88 percent. While evangelical Presbyterians improved racial diversity from 88 percent majority white to 81 percent.
The PCUSA continues to attract highly educated adherents with just 3 percent of those surveyed failing to finish high school. In terms of the highest degree earned, 24 percent of PCUSA adherents have finished college and 23 percent have post-graduate degrees. Only the United Church of Christ (23 percent) and the Episcopal Church (27 percent) have a more highly educated constituency.
And when it comes to family income, only the Episcopalians outpace the PCUSA Presbyterians. 32 percent of PCUSA adherents have a family income over $100,000, up 4 percent from 2007.