Christianity continues its decline in the US, unbelievers and the non-affiliated increase

May 13, 2016 • 11:30 am

I’m busy today, but wanted to call attention to a new Pew survey, “America’s changing religious landscape”, which gives some good news to atheists and anti-theists. (The report’s summary is here, and the full pdf is here.)

The upshot: the proportions of Christians, Catholics, and Protestants in the U.S. are falling, while the proportion of “nones” (those not formally affiliated with a church, which includes unaffiliated God-believers, “spiritual” people, atheists, and agnostics) is rising—and rising rapidly. Have a gander at the data from 2007-2014.


You can see that, lest we worry that other faiths are filling the lacuna of departed Christians, that’s not the case: non-Christians went up only 1.2%, while the unaffiliated rose by 6.7%. Here’s Pew’s summary, which doesn’t add much but I thought I’d put it in for those who like words more than plots:

But the major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus, albeit from a very low base.

Here’s a breakdown by religion. “Outlier” forms of Christianity, like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, seem to be holding steady, but constitute only a very small proportion of the population. Muslims have nearly doubled their proportion, though it’s low, and Hindus have shown a modest increase. This is probably due to either immigration or higher birthrates:


Now the data are in terms of percentages, but the population is growing, so percentages don’t translate directly into numbers. For example, though Evangelical Protestants have dropped 0.9% in proportion, their numbers have risen from 59.8 million to 62.2 million. But don’t worry, folks, for I think what matters is the proportion. And if you look at the number of “nones”, it has risen drastically.

Finally, what about those “nones”? The data show that the increase in the unaffiliated is higher in the older age groups, but it’s gone up in all of them.

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 8.24.45 AM

And Pew’s analysis of how the proportion of atheists and agnostics among is rising. Atheists are still only 3.1%, but if you add agnostics it’s 7.1%, and I bet a lot of the other nones, especially the “spiritual” ones, have beliefs that aren’t harmful to society. Pew:

As the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated continue to grow, they also describe themselves in increasingly secular terms. In 2007, 25% of the “nones” called themselves atheists or agnostics; 39% identified their religion as “nothing in particular” and also said that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important in their lives; and 36% identified their religion as “nothing in particular” while nevertheless saying that religion is either “very important” or “somewhat important” in their lives. The new survey finds that the atheist and agnostic share of the “nones” has grown to 31%. Those identifying as “nothing in particular” and describing religion as unimportant in their lives continue to account for 39% of all “nones.” But the share identifying as “nothing in particular” while also affirming that religion is either “very” or “somewhat” important to them has fallen to 30% of all “nones.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 8.25.27 AM

For those who say, “American will always be a religious country”, my response is, “I wouldn’t bet on it.”

h/t: Barry

49 thoughts on “Christianity continues its decline in the US, unbelievers and the non-affiliated increase

  1. Even an increase in the variety of religions could be a positive phenomenon, since it erodes the credibility of any particular faith being “the one true religion.” It’s an easy step to go from 99.9% of religions are false to a figure 0.1% higher.

  2. In the 1990s it was predicted for Canada that the country would polarize with no “middle” between nones or very liberal congregations (UUs, etc.) on the one and fundamentalist Protestants on the other. I wonder if the trend in the US was predicted to be similar, and if so, this is a falsification. (I’ve been trying to find reliable Canadian data, and it is hard.)

  3. Smoking declined dramatically when it socially went from being an indication that you are cool to being an indication that you are a foolish drug addict.

    I think a similar phenomenon is happening to religion. It used to be indication that you were virtuous and it is fast becoming an indication that you are a foolish dupe.

    A long time ago I made the argument that people could and would be embarrassed out of being religious. I think that is coming true. Slowly but surely, being religious is becoming embarrassing as opposed to a badge of honor.

    1. I agree with your comments. It is becoming embarrassing to be religious thanks, largely, to strident gnu atheists refusing to shut up.

      1. Indeed. We are the friend who will tell you when you have an embarrassing booger hanging from your nose, as opposed to those who notice but say nothing for fear of hurting your feelings.

      2. Agree with both of you and will add that I suspect a big slice of the Nones are atheist already but are not ready to admit it yet (perhaps even to themselves).

      3. Neil Carter over on Pathos might differ. He lives in I think Mississippi and regularly recounts how as an atheist (and former fundie) he has faced scorn, harassment and was turfed from his job because of it.

        So yes, overall good news, but not for everyone and not everywhere.

    2. Matt,

      That does ring true to me.

      Religion seemed to wane for a while, then came back in the 80’s with more influence.

      Now it seems clear that it’s been put on it’s back foot, much of it because of the pushback by atheism. I know so many people who were not religious, but who just never gave it much thought, who are now more educated about why religion is both ludicrous and a liability.

      And when I read Christian sources, and listen to Christian podcasts or radio, it’s very clear they know perception has changed, that more people are seeing them as believing in loony ideas, and that they have to raise their efforts to combat the withering view of religion now taking hold.

      1. It definitely came back in the 1980s (with the kids of the boomers, mostly). I remember the rise of the mega-churches. Along with the rise of the neo-conservative movement. All (in my opinion) in reaction to the evil, hedonistic 1960s.

        I remember being amazed in the 80s how many work colleagues (of about my age) were sincerely religious.

        It is very heartening to see the “nones” rising.

      2. I also mark as progress the public figures that have been willing to come “out” as atheists in recent years (since the Gnu’s books, pretty much). It’s becoming much more acceptable.

      3. Yes – witness the resurge in interest in apologetics. On the flip side, our local CFI group has had great interest in our counter-apologetics series, even by some religious folk!

    3. . It used to be indication that you were virtuous and it is fast becoming an indication that you are a foolish dupe.

      I think it’s also fast becoming an indication that you are actively NOT virtuous. The public face of many religions, from Islam to the Christian right, is at odds with broader ideas of morality. Most American, for example, probably don’t see Hobby Lobby’s anti-contraceptive coverage stance, or Kim Davis gay marriage intransigence, as virtuous. Quite the opposite. Ditto for Catholic church’s opposition to birth control in places where AIDs is a problem.

      The Christian right cozying up to the GOP hasn’t helped either, as it has attached them to gun nuttery, war mongering, torture, anti-help for the poor, and maybe some racism.

      The reputation of religion as a locus of virtue is, I think, greatly tarnished compared to when I was a young person.

  4. I’m not trying to be mean, but this “new” survey was news a year ago. These charts have already circulated the internet a million times.

    Still: it is good news.

    1. It’s the first time I’ve seen it (and it’s laid out and explained so clearly), so thanks, Jerry!

        1. I’m sure it’s old news, but I love it every time it gets mentioned again! Can’t wait to hear news about the 2015 study to compare!

          1. Agree! Their latest religious survey is about Israeli Christians which I haven’t looked at. I’m not quite sure what the big deal would be there. Perhaps there are a lot of evangelicals turning up for the second coming? I know a lot go there to work on kibbutzes for that reason.

  5. The data show that the increase in the unaffiliated is higher in the older age groups

    Younger age groups, I thin.
    What I note is that the proportion of Muslims has doubled in the comparison period (I’ll just pause to let someone coat that in napalm, and chuck it towards Trump along with with a lit flare) and the only group with a comparable rise is the atheists.
    Oh, that’s got a nice little flame of controversy and indignation going. Anyone got a toasting fork and fresh bread? Marshmallow? Flashman’s gonads?

  6. Happy days ahead. Most of this transition is nothing more than life just being life…

    Typical religious day: latte, doctor’s appointment, pick up the kids from school, pay mortgage, watch BBC mystery with wine…

    Typical atheist day: latte, doctor’s appointment, pick up the kids from school, pay mortgage, watch BBC mystery with wine…

    The collective hive, which is humanity, is moving towards an understanding that even if you want supernatural stuff to matter, it does not make any practical difference.

  7. Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil.

    Good to know that there are ever more strolling through the valley with us. Our cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow.

  8. That appears good news.
    However, if you look at it proportionally, the rise of Islam is worrying (as gravel-Aidan already pointed out). Muslims, especially of the fundamentalist kind, tend to sling influence way above their numbers, confer Europe.

    Here in South Africa, we do not have these numbers available. Would be interesting to have them.
    I know only a dozen ‘out of the closet’ atheists here, and half of those are not even South African citizens, but imports from overseas. I suspect there are many more ‘in the closet’ atheists here, especially among the higher educated, but I would be shy to put a number on that.
    Kind of strange if you take into account that the liberation movement, turned into a political party (and according to many a cesspool of corruption now), the ANC was, and still is, basically secular and non-religious.

  9. And yet I still feel uncomfortable calling myself an atheist in front of most people, even in one of the less religious parts of the U.S. I shouldn’t, but I do. Strange.

    1. For me, it depends on the context and who’s asking. If I don’t know the person well I generally say “I’m not religious”.

    2. I do too, but that’s because I think many believers take it as an affront. Which in fact it often is, no matter how benignly we try to say it.

      For this reason, I rather enjoy mentioning my atheism amongst those I can’t really stand anyway, but I feel like a cad doing so to a really sweet person, no matter how much she (usually, she) is babbling about God. At the most, I’ll sugarcoat it–“I’m not very religious, actually…”

  10. I’m always skeptical about aggregate analyses across all 50 US states simultaneously, but taking just a brief look at the state level data does seem to confirm the aggregate picture in this case. I only extracted figures for “absolutely certain belief in god” and for “do not believe in god” from 2007 to 2014 in each state, but these are reasonable proxies to look at.

    Excluding the handful of states for which trend info was not available (VT, RI, DE, SD, ND, WY, AK, HI), the *only* state that showed an increase in the proportion of people absolutely certain in their belief in god was West Virginia (from 76% to 77%). The only state that did not show at least a one percentage point increase in the proportion of people who do not believe in god was Alabama (holding steady at 2%).

    Moreover, grouping the available states into more culturally homogenous clusters (very liberal West and Northeast, moderately liberal Midwest, moderately conservative Mountain West, very conservative South), trends seem to be strikingly uniform across groups. The typical (mean or median) decrease in the proportion of people absolutely certain in their belief in god is about 8%, and the typical increase in the proportion of people not believing in god is about 5%. The South is slightly lower at 7% and 3% respectively.

    Better news than I imagined!

  11. We need to see the none’s and the agnostics move on over to the atheist camp. 22.8 percent atheists would be great. There is no reason to remain in the doubt or not sure camp and it is likely, just as stated above, they don’t want to come out in public, so to speak. Worry about friends or family I would guess.

    Maybe if they would join FFRF and start reading about all the good work they are doing it would help them to make up their minds.

    1. To the contrary, I think atheists should embrace agnostics and worry less about what exact term people prefer at the moment. A great majority of us–including Dawkins–are essentially atheist-agnostics, meaning there’s no way we can prove the absence of a deity.

      The more agnostics are welcomed by atheists the more they will be around thought that many encourage the teeterers to embrace the word atheist. I’ve seen more than one list-serv of non-believers dissolve into warring fractions over this semantic disagreement, when we’d be so much more effective ignoring those picky distinctions.

      Note that I am not equating agnostics with accomodationists. The latter can include both atheists and agnostics. (There’s a Venn diagram here somewhere… 🙂 )

      1. The terms atheist and agnostic address different issues.
        Atheist addresses the issue of belief, or lack thereof.
        Agnostic addresses the issue of knowledge: eg, what can be known of god. Atheist and agnostic are not exclusive of each other; there is no need to choose one or the other. It’s a logical absolute that a person can only have belief or lack belief. Being undecided only means they are undecided as to whether they are theist or atheist. Being undecided does not qualify a person as agnostic.
        Agnostic is the belief that god cannot be known.
        Agnosticism includes the unfalsifiable nature of knowing whether a god does or does not exist.
        So, a person can be agnostic while also choosing to believe or not believe in a god. Agnosticism only describes any possible god as unknowable.
        A person can be.
        Agnostic atheist
        Agnostic theist
        A person cannot be only agnostic. Many who call themselves agnostic will object. Too bad. All individuals, agnostics included, are either with belief or are without belief in a god. Whether that god can be known is a separate issue.

        1. So, a person can be agnostic while also choosing to believe or not believe in a god.

          You left out, “…or without choosing either option.”

          I believe Schrodinger’s cat is both alive and dead. I won’t lean either way until an observation can be made. (Which it can’t.)

    2. Nearly all agnostics are atheist whether they admit it or not.
      If a person lacks belief in a god; they are atheist.
      When a person tell me they are agnostic, I ask them if they are agnost-theist or agnostic-atheist. If they say, only agnostic, I ask them if they believe in a god or god concept; if they don’t ; they are atheist. Whether they like the title or not.

      1. “…if they don’t ; they are atheist.”

        False conclusion. They can claim that there’s not enough evidence available to be absolutely certain of either stance.

  12. IIRC, when the 2007 figures were released, I predicted by crude extrapolation and comparison with NZ that non-affiliation would grow dramatically and reach 40% of the population by the mid/late 2020s.

    As the older, more religious generation dies off, non-religion and religious indifference are normalised and belief can no longer take its market share for granted.

  13. Nearly all agnostics are also implicit atheist, but are simply reluctant to own the title. Many don’t know what qualifies as “atheist”. Being atheist does not require positive belief that there is not a god; only being without positive belief that there is a god is enough. Its known as implicit and explicit atheist.

    1. Yes, I’ve heard all your definitions before. This it the sort of argument that broke up those list-servs I mentioned–everyone insisting on their own definitions of the terms, when in fact each has more than one accepted meaning, and I think it’s counteractive to debate them.

      I agree that some agnostics are “reluctant to own the title.” (Sam Harris, for one.) But I don’t think whether they do or don’t should matter much to us, unless they’re seriously arguing for the possibility of the existence of a deity. I daresay many of us were once “reluctant to own the title” ourselves at one point in our lives.

      1. Good points. For those “scale non-believers” (who use the definitions that see atheism and agnosticism as two points on a single scale) there are some who avoid “atheist” for fear of appearing strident/harsh/mean. (Neal deGrasse Tyson is another example of this.)

        As for me, I’m a two-scale type and claim both terms. But both sets of definitions are correct and there’s no progress to be made from arguing about which is right.

        OTH, there are social/political reasons to claim the word “atheist” loudly and proudly. It it all about normalizing non-belief and moving the Overton window a bit.

        1. I completely agree with all of that! Including seeing myself as both an atheist and an agnostic.

Leave a Reply