The rise in secularism: 25% of “millennial” Americans are atheists, agnostics, or don’t see religion as personally important

May 15, 2015 • 8:45 am

Two days ago I wrote about the recent Pew report showing a decline in American Christianity (curiously, evangelicals aren’t declining nearly as much as mainline Protestants and Catholics), as well as a marked rise in the proportion of atheists, agnostics, and “nones,” with “nones” being those lacking formal affiliation to a church.

Over at the New York Times, David Leondhart dissected the data further, taking out, that portion of the “nones” who don’t find religion important to them, and lumping that moiety together with declared atheists and agnostics. The total gives the proportion of living Americans in different age classes who can be considered serious non-theists. And that total is impressive: it’s a quarter of the millennials—those born after 1980! Assuming that religosity doesn’t markedly increase as one gets older (and the data suggest the opposite), and further that millennials won’t turn to faith when they age, this means the country is getting more secular. As Leondhart notes, even the cross-sectional data, using all Americans, shows this trend over the last seven years:

The chart here is another way to think about the trend. Pew asks Americans what their religion is and gives several choices for people who don’t identify as belonging to one. One choice is “atheist,” another is “agnostic” and a third is “nothing in particular.” Among people who give that last answer, Pew also asks whether religion is important in their lives.

To create a larger category of the nonreligious, I’ve combined atheists, agnostics and people who said both that they didn’t belong to a religion and that religion wasn’t important to them. This group made up 15.8 percent of the United States population in 2014, up from 10.3 percent only seven years earlier, according to Pew.

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 8.48.36 AMThe article also notes that younger people probably won’t become more religious as they age, as the trend has been in the opposite direction. Thus the bar chart likely gives us an overview of what is happening to Americans as a whole.

What’s palpably clear from both the Pew report and this data is that, bit by bit, religion is losing its hold on America. As Dan Dennett notes, this trend could be reversed if some cataclysm drives people back to religion (plenty of evidence suggests that religiosity is negatively correlated with Americans’ feeling of well-being), but let’s hope things go well. Income inequality is strongly correlated with religiosity in the U.S. (as it increases, so does religion), so there are at least two ways a Republican president in 2017 could derail this trend.

34 thoughts on “The rise in secularism: 25% of “millennial” Americans are atheists, agnostics, or don’t see religion as personally important

  1. Am I reading this right?

    Looks like 16% of Americans and 25% of Millennials, not 25% of Millennials…?

    Either way…we outnumber all religious non-Christians combined (including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and what-not); we outnumber Blacks; and we’re about at parity with Hispanics.

    Can you imagine what would happen if any of those demographic groups were regularly referred to as “strident” or “militant” or without morality or reason to live?


        1. Nope. Pandering to us would be far, far more offensive to believers than pandering to them is to us, for obvious reasons.

          I’d also like to think rationalists are less susceptible to pandering, maybe someday I’ll get to have that theory tested. Not holding my breath, though.

          1. “I’d also like to think rationalists are less susceptible to pandering”

            Yes I suspect that’s true, and largely true of the left in general. I can’t really think of any single issues that politicians could pander too as they do with right wing voters on things like pro-life, gun rights, or opposition to gay marriage that would cause many on the left to ignore everything else a politician stands for.

  2. The rise of the Hispanic population in the US may also increase the religious percentage, as that group is more Christian indoctrinated. Unless a Hispanic Darwin comes along and change the trend.

  3. Another observation…looks like the doubling rate is about 30 years, or roughly the same as the economy and inflation and oil production and all the rest. That would suggest a majority nonreligious population in another 30 years, at which point I’d guess the curve would become S-shaped, with 75% nonreligious towards the end of the century.


    1. So you’re predicting a Malthusian catastrophe for the tax-exempt collection-plate passers?

      1. It’s likely to be too slow to be perceived as a catastrophe…but, yet.

        Many churches are already having trouble paying the bills. That’s not only the “new normal,” it’s going to grow….


  4. Per Ben’s comment: “…it will take another 30 years…” Sorry I won’t be around to see America grow up and quit this childhood nonsense.

    1. I might just make it. Especially if my son invents that anti-aging pill he promised me one night when I was tucking him in.

      1. Make sure you share that pill darrelle!

        This sort of ties into yesterday’s post about wanting to live forever. I wouldn’t want immortality, but I’d love to live long enough to see the Bible placed on the shelf next to The Iliad; or even more importantly, the Quran (though the later might take something like immortality to witness).

      2. I thought I’d make it but I’m starting to think I’m an early attempt at cloning as all my parts are wearing out early. I have to get cataract surgery already!!

  5. The “nones” are a diverse group. What issues can they organize around? Christopher Buckley may have different issues than me, for example.

    Common issues: getting rid of blasphemy laws, promoting freedom of speech, and taxing religious institutions just like everyone else; only one’s chariable activities are non-taxable, not making a statue of your favorite religious figure. Are there any others?

    Atheists must make themselves visible. People need living, breathing examples of healthy folks. Otherwise they believe the Grimm’s fairytale version of atheism promoted by religions.

    1. I think the biggest thing, by far, is instigating a change to making policy decisions based primarily on real, verifiable, well vetted data compiled by scientists in relevant fields, mathematicians and statisticians. Of course that is a battle against just plain old corruption as much as anything else.

  6. While I don’t have the numbers with me any more, a similar poll was done here in Oregon recently with similar, if more accentuated, results. Portland is the least religious big city in America and Oregon the least religious state. (It may partly explain why, in the recent elections, when everyone swung to the right, we swung to the left.)

    But in our survey, they asked the none-affiliated a further question: whether or not they believed in god; and a further 18%, or some such, said “no.” In other words, while they declared they didn’t believe in god, they didn’t want to be associated with the word “atheist.” This could well be true nationally, which would imply the percentage of atheists is higher than recorded.

  7. The trend is good particularly because the younger people appear to be less into religion and the next generation should be even better.

    Maybe one day they won’t need to have this conversation any longer? However, in the Islamic world this is not happening.

    1. The trend is beginning in the islamic world, look at all the atheist bloggers. I’m sure there are many many closet-atheists, who understandibly can’t come out.
      Once the critical mass is reached, I’d say we’ll see the change out in the open. In the mean time the best thing the international atheist community can do, is being there and to provide resources and informations.

  8. I’m confused about how this data plays together. If income inequality leads to higher religiosity, it obviously isn’t as large of a factor as the general trend towards secularism. Income inequality has been on the rise for going on four decades, at least. Is there data showing that the rise of secularism would be even greater if we discounted rising inequality?

    1. If it helps…we’re right in the middle, with our percentages a good reflection of the percentages of the population in its entirety.


      Once again, we’re overlooked as nothing special….


  9. Does anyone have any data or surveys on rates of conversion between religions (including non-religion)?

    I’m looking data to support/refute the claim that non-religious millennials are unlikely to pick up religion later in life.

    1. As a convert myself (from agnostic Catholic to atheist Jew), I’d be interested to know about such a study myself.

      I bet there is a rough equivalence between rates of deconversion from belief and those of late conversion from non-belief, based on experience and a general sense of how people’s brains change when they reach the working/child-bearing years (aka “circling the drain”) – though conversion is so much harder to relate to and may be somewhat less frequent. There’s also the truthy chestnut that conversion happens in an instant whereas deconversion is slow and deliberate.

      Humans are weird.

  10. What evidence is there that religiosity increases when wellbeing is decreased? It seems like there are some studies that show that believers have greater wellbeing, I know this is not exactly the same thing.

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