Losing our religion: the U.S. slowly goes secular

October 22, 2017 • 9:45 am

Several readers called my attention to a new short article in Scientific American, “The U.S. is retreating from religion“, which highlights a recent study by the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by NORC (the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago.  The upshot is something I’ve written about a lot: the U.S. is slowly becoming more secular. Our country, I suspect, will be as atheistic as Denmark or Sweden in about 150 years. (Sadly, we won’t be around to see that.)

The GSS has been conducted since 1972 (see methodology and data here), and among its inquiries is the religious affiliation of Americans. The first graph below shows the changes from 1972 to 2016 (solid lines), and projections to 2035 (further shaded areas). The projections are apparently based on “a statistical model of the relationship between year of birth, age, and religion.”

While the GSS asked people about the four religious affiliations below, plus whether they were Jewish, only the first four are shown (Jews are only a few percent of Americans.) But the trend is absolutely clear: Protestantism is falling rapidly, Catholicism much more slowly, “other religions” are holding steady and low at about 5-7%, and the “nones”—those with no clear religious affiliation, though they may believe in a god, or be “spiritual” or atheists—have been rising rapidly and predicted to rise even faster.

As the article notes:

Since 1990, the fraction of Americans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled, from about 8 percent to 22 percent. Over the next 20 years, this trend will accelerate: by 2020, there will be more of these “Nones” than Catholics, and by 2035, they will outnumber Protestants.

This projection doesn’t account, I suspect, for immigration, which may change these projections because (especially under Trump) since it’s unpredictable and the projections appear to be based solely on age data. Nevertheless, some of us will be around to see the day that “nones” comprise the most common species of “believers” (and nonbelievers) in America:

The data on which some of the projections were made are given below: how age is correlated with religious affiliation. The trends are similar, with Protestantism losing big time and “nones” much more prevalent among younger than among older people, although Catholicism is a wee bit more frequent among younger than older people.  It could be that more young people are converting to Catholicism than to other forms of belief. As the article notes:

Among people born before 1940, a large majority are Protestant, only 20–25 percent are Catholic, and very few are Nones or Others. But these numbers have changed rapidly in the last few generations: among people born since 1980, there are more Nones than Catholics, and among the youngest adults, there may already be more Nones than Protestants.

However, this view of the data does not show the effect of age. If religious affiliation increases or decreases, on average, as people get older, this figure could be misleading.

Allen Downey, the article’s author, in fact sees these predictions as conservative in the direction of overestimating religiosity and underestimating the “nones”: you can read the reasons why in his piece.

Why is this happening? I suspect that it’s because the social well-being of America is increasing over time, and there’s plenty of evidence that increased well being—measured by a variety of statistics like healthcare, income inequality, incarceration rates and so on—is associated with lower religiosity both among countries and among states in the U.S. But of course if this is the reason, some unpredictable cataclysm, like nuclear war with North Korea, could upset these trends.

Absent that, we can still say with confidence that those who proclaim that “religion in America is stronger than ever” are simply full of it.

Downey, a Professor of Computer Science at Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts, provides more data here, and has a longer version of this piece on his website, Probably Overthinking It. He notes “It applies the same methods to predict changes in other aspects of religion: belief in God, interpretation of the Bible, and confidence in the people who run religious organizations.”

93 thoughts on “Losing our religion: the U.S. slowly goes secular

  1. Interesting that Catholicism has remained so stable. I wonder why that is. Could it be that many immigrants from Central and South America are Catholic, thus replacing those who were born in the US and dropped out of the religion or died? Also interesting that Catholicism appears to be on a very slight upward trend by birth year.

      1. I believe the Religious Landscape survey (see Pew) of a few years ago shows that the Catholic church in the US is losing members at a high rate, but, immigration is replacing those members (and immigrants on the whole tend to be younger).

    1. I think the trends reflect old religious people dying off and being replaced by less religious younger generations. The Catholics do a better job of brainwashing children, as can be seen in the second graph.

        1. Same thing the nativists were saying about Italian and Polish Catholics a century ago. Anti-immigrant bias has always been the primary motivating factor underlying antipapism.

            1. The liturgy was in Latin, but the homilies and sermons were always given in the parishioners’ native tongue.

    2. I noticed that too and wondered if it’s people saying they are Catholic but really they are Catholic in name only, the so-called C&E Catholics. I have Catholic friends like that.

      1. In the southwest, Cultural Catholics are a real deal. There are C&E Catholics, but they are basically atheist. Cultural Catholics, in my view, still believe in God, Jesus, Mary, but on women and gay issues, they are significantly more liberal than than what the church would like from their members.

        The other thing about Cultural and C&E Catholics is that their kids have less chance of retaining religion. The motivation to waste a lazy Sunday on a coach or playing tennis outside is too much for the local pastor to compete against.

        Life is about life. Catholics can’t escape their historical link to the power of death (and suffering).

        1. “Cultural Catholics, in my view, still believe in God, Jesus, Mary…”

          The adjective “cultural” is wrong here. It should be “liberal”. “Cultural Catholic” is a rather fuzzy concept and I’m not even sure what such a person would think about the Church. But I would think they would have no truck with deities and such.

  2. Religiosity declines as social well-being increases: So, religions need to deny women healthcare, increase income inequality, destroy government-provided social safety nets and encourage racial-ethnic-gender divisiveness in order to maintain/increase their power. Some politicians know this and pander to those needs in order to maintain their own hold on power. Ha.

    1. This trend has been seen in many places, but has failed to materialize in many others. Various Eastern European countries, Turkey, some Middle East and African countries, and many South American countries seem to have remained significantly religious despite social progress. Some Asian countries as well, especially East Asia. South Korea’s Christianity has grown over the years (though the Protestant growth has slowed due to scandals permeating the church there).

      Besides South Korea, this is just the impressions I have of many other countries. I don’t know the statistics.

  3. I think extrapolating to 150 years might be overreaching a bit, but yeah, none of us will be around for the “I told ya so”. I’d imagine some cataclysmic events will occur (e.g., nuclear war, pandemic, machine apocalypse, climate-induced chaos) where frightened immiserated people may be seduced by the notion that some higher power will fix things. Religions have leveraged this promise before, to great effect.

  4. Beware the escalating death throes of organized religion – threats to their mythology will elicit aggressive behavior- which the pols exploit,always, making for very dangerous times. Now and to come.

    All Hail Ceiling Cat for the hope, even knowing I won’t live to partake!

  5. Yes, good stats, direction wise, but more interesting is the cultural issues such as healthcare in this country. It is the religious that want no healthcare. It is the religious that want govt. out of your lives except to protect their religion. It is the religion that wants you to stand up and worship the flag. It is generally the religious who go to church on Sunday and then sexually harass the employees at work the rest of the week. Another interesting fact is the depth of religion by region. Show the stats by state and see the backward areas of the country. Go live in one of these religious states and you see it all around you.

      1. Overstated you say? Looking for evidence besides living in a religious state? And maybe you don’t notice so much if you have not lived much in a not so religious place.
        There are 19 states that did not expand support to their citizens (poor people)when medicaid expanded under the ACA. I will not list all of them for you but you get the idea if you know these states and probably live in one of them.

    1. I used to live in a “backward area” during the W. years and it really sucked. What I always found irritating is everyone where I worked assumed every one else was religious. People were shocked when they found out I was an atheist…I usually kept it to myself because of the negative responses from my co-workers. This one young woman noticeably kept her distance after I made a snide anti-religious comment; she also said she’d never watch a Heath Ledger film after his Brokeback Mountain performance. Being surrounded by such people for the majority of the day was draining. I’m extremely happy to be living in a blue state again; it’s shocking how different living in two different US states can be.

      1. Damn. I think you just described the town I’ve been living in for for the past 20 years. It is definitely draining. Even on the drive home I have a gauntlet of Trump bumper stickers to get through.

  6. This trend towards secularization of American society has created a panic for white Christians. They are mobilizing their dwindling resources to combat it, hence, their overwhelming support for Trump. For them, it matters little that Trump represents everything they railed against for decades. That he supports their positions is all that counts. Despite their dwindling numbers, they have managed to retain political power in this country, from the state to the federal level (including the Supreme Court), through being the base of the Republican Party. How can this be? The answer is that they have turned out in massive numbers to vote while the opposition, which includes secular folk and minorities, have not matched these numbers in crucial races. Gerrymandering and voter suppression are other factors.

    The only way to end this terrible situation is through the electoral process, which may take decades. This means increasing voting turnout among groups that do not vote proportionate to their numbers: minorities and the poor. Those who desire the end of white Christian dominion should not expect to turn around many Trump voters. Polls have consistently shown that his supporters are impervious to the damage he has done this country. At least to now, Trump has proven to be a master of white identity politics, based on racial tribalism. If opponents of Trump hope to end white Christian rule in this country then they may need to play identity politics as well, even more than in the past. As this country becomes more divided, identity politics is not desirable, but it may be the only game in town. The specter of white Christian dominion is even less desirable.

    1. …they have turned out in massive numbers to vote while the opposition, which includes secular folk and minorities, have not matched these numbers in crucial races. Gerrymandering and voter suppression are other factors.

      Voter turnout by fundamentals is not the critical factor. Voter suppression is a canard. Increasing turnout by ‘our’ identity groups, while continuing to drive away others, is not the answer.

      As this country becomes more divided, identity politics is not desirable, but it may be the only game in town.

      The left is just as responsible for the divide, with it’s emphasis on identity politics. Can you not entertain the possibility that the Dems’ message is at fault for their failure, alienating the bulk of the electorate?

      The specter of white Christian dominion is even less desirable.

      I’m no more sanguine about the specter of a Regressive Left thought-police state.

      1. There is that other thing not mentioned here that is a big plus for the republicans. They had and have, Russia working for them, all over face book and twitter and who knows where. It is a pretty good bet that it was very important in getting out the vote for Trump and republicans.

        1. Well, in the end even with Russia’s money, Clinton’s campaign budget was probably still bigger than Trump’s. She had access to Facebook and Twitter just as much, if not more than Trump (and the Russians) not to mention most of the “main stream media” on her side.
          I think the voter suppression tactics have more of an impact than anything the Russians might have done.

      2. No, voter suppression is not a canard unlike right wing claims of voter fraud. This article from the Brookings Institute discusses the all too real existence of voter suppression.


        Also, totally unsurprisingly, right wingers cannot even entertain the possibility that the Trump movement was fueled by white identity politics. As far as thought police go, I understand fully why you would have no problem living in a society where generals, such as John Kelly, cannot be questioned.

        1. Yes, I saw something on the news just recently that showed how many voters in Wisconsin were either refused or stayed away at the last election and it was something like 45,000. All because of more difficult procedures put in place in this state. Clinton lost by something like 18,000 in this state.

        2. Even if that piece weren’t mostly smoke & mirrors, those allegedly blocked from voting do not belong to demographics that tend to vote in any case. This is not why Dems are failing on a massive scale.

          1. “…do not belong to demographics that tend to vote in any case.”

            They “don’t tend to vote” because of real hardships engineered by right wing voter suppression. Polls that are only open on one working day in November; that working people need to try to get to before or after work; where they may stand in line for two hours due to reduced polling places in specific neighborhoods; where registration is made unduly difficult; where day care for children is unavailable or unaffordable; where identification requirements are changed capriciously and at the last minute…all that, even before taking gerrymandering into consideration.

            1. I always find it amazing that there isn’t one set of rules (day(s) to vote, opening hours for polling stations, amount of polling stations per certain amount of people, rules for identification etc) for presidential elections across the US.

              1. I asked about this a few years back – why the US doesn’t have something like Elections Canada. And the answer was “states rights”. Where have we heard *that* one before? 🙁

          2. Most of those people don’t vote anyway, so it’s no big deal to prevent the rest of them from voting — that’s your justification for voter-suppression laws?

              1. I didn’t claim you support it; you first claimed that it didn’t happen (“a canard”) and then that it’s no big deal because they don’t vote anyway.

      3. “Voter suppression is a canard.”

        Are you ignorant of the efforts the GOP has made around the nation to suppress the vote of minorities — like the voter ID law in North Carolina that specifically excluded the forms of ID that a study found black citizens were most likely to present?

        1. If you think you’ve been losing elections at every level for the past eight years because of voter suppression, you are deluding yourself.

            1. Non sequitur. To gerrymander, the GOP had to first win all those state legislatures under the old districting. They did so because the Dems alienated the electorate with identity politics.

              1. 2010 was a wave election. Then began the gerrymandering and voter suppression. The fact of Republican victories in 2010 does not contradict the facts of gerrymandering and voter suppression.

                You’ve been calming that these things don’t exist. The do. They are not delusions.

              2. The GOP is doing everything in its power to maintain its grip on political power, the will of the majority be damned — gerrymandering, voter suppression, etc. (This is in addition to its ruthless manipulation of the rules of the anti-democratic US senate, and the benefits it’s received from the anti-democratic electoral college).

                It will be a sad chapter in American history if the GOP succeeds. Democracy does not mean you win an election or two and then juke the system so that you can continue to prevail in spite of the majority’s will.

      4. I am delighted that someone brought up the issue of Identity Politics and the Regressive Left, as Jerry himself has been doing. Leftist authoritarianism is already in full swing, and when push comes to shove, the Regrssive Left will repeat the same lethal mistakes they made in supporting Stalin, Mao, Chavez and Castro. Read the leftist blogs (Democracy Now, counterpounch, alternet, atruthdig, Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, and John Pilger and Chris Hedges and you will immediately see their propaganda and distorted news that loves what has happened to Venezuela and Russia. Aligning with totalitarians and demonizing the U.S.A. is the modus operandi of the American left.Democracy in this country is threatened more by the neo Stalinist left than by Trump. Our Constitution and 1st Amendment are under constant attack by the loony left. These are dark times. Watch out for the rabid right but keep a close watch on the Regressive Left. They are up to no good.

        1. I’ll worry about the regressive left when it shows any signs of gaining political power, particularly in the federal government. Since this unrealized fear of a leftist takeover has been a fantasy of the right wing since the days of FDR, I have no worries about that happening anytime soon. Because the head of the federal government is an authoritarian narcissist, my concerns are with him and his Republican enablers, not with right wing delusions.

        2. Chrissakes, I’ve been on the left since I had my first inklings of political awareness in the Sixties, and haven’t come across enough fans of “Stalin, Mao, Chavez and Castro” to form a minyan on their best day. There may be some of those people stashed away on college campuses and third-rate blogs, but none of them are bona fide political activists.

          And Russia? Maybe you haven’t heard, but Russia’s long been under the control of a right-wing kleptocrat.

    2. You NAILED IT !!! We minorities have known this from the get go.
      White “Christians” were often our worst enemies, belonging to the klan & other white supremacy groups. They fear the increasing numbers of non white immigrants & the projected stats say whites will be a minority by 2050 so they throw away the love thy neighbor teachings of Christ & embrace the unhinged bigotry & hate being spread by #45 since he began his campaign. Hate crimes against Hispanics, Jews, blacks & Muslims have increased since the election. Hope 45 doesn’t start WWIII with N Korea with his incompetence.

  7. I hope those projections hold true, but even if religion is declining, I’ve seen no evidence that general superstition is. I recall that White in his A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom was confident 125 years ago that religion was on its way out. Certainly, we are in a better position today, as the wall between church and state is much higher than it was then, and religion get much less unreflective respect in society. I am not convinced, though, that the vacuum will be filled with reason and humanism.

    1. Agree. Sans religion there will still be sizable demographics primed to follow secular demagogues and charlatans.

  8. Although I am encouraged by these trends, there are possible mounting factors that might slow or reverse them. A rising demographic are Hispanics, and they are largely Catholic. I wonder if that is taken into account. Also, besides a holocaust like nuclear war a slower global warming disaster will be mounting over the next century. Rather than resulting an enlighted, pro-science populace, the cynic in me worries about people retreating to their old habits and superstitions. When things go bad; religion rises.

  9. “Protestantism is falling rapidly, Catholicism much more slowly”

    When I look at the green curve of the first graph, it is not clear to me that Catholicism is falling at all.

    Maybe I suck as a data analyst but if I had these numbers from an experiment, I would say “Essentially steady.”

    Now, is there any data smart person on this blog who would care to comment on that ?

    1. I think it’s holding fairly steady as well. Remember that Catholics demand that, when marrying a non-Catholic, that the person must convert to Catholicism or the church will not recognize the marriage. Also, you must agree to raise your children as Catholic. I think this makes a bunch of C&E Catholics. I know a lot of Catholics that don’t really believe. In Canada, Catholic is the majority religion.

      1. Who cares? Once you have your marriage licence it is a done deal. You can have whatever ceremony you wish. Trust me. I am a victim of this.

        1. Um. People who care about accurate stats care. Most cave into that pressure and that will affect the numbers.

      2. ” . . . Catholics demand that, when marrying a non-Catholic, that the person must convert to Catholicism . . . .”

        I wonder how many Catholics marry Jews.

        1. None that stay Catholic I suspect. My grandmother was booted out of the Catholic Church for marrying a Baptist.

              1. Statistically, Italy has the biggest catholic population in Europe. Statistically, Italy has the biggest population of nonpracticing catholics in Europe. I would guess that conversion means nonpracticing.

              2. Sort of what I was arguing all along – that the stats may reflect non practicing Catholics.

          1. You could also do pies, but to best show the trends, I’d go with either stacked lines or — if polls were widely separated in time — single bars for each poll. In both instances, the ‘slices’ would total 100%.

    1. Yes, it seems to give a misleading impression just looking at the graph. If you read carefully you find 2/3 of those born in 2000 are believers.

      Separate issue:
      Does astrology count in none? I bet it does .

      1. My hunch is they’re used to reporting political races, so it looks like the Protestants still have a lead, but the nones are gaining.

        Had I produced a graph like this in my market research days, I’d have received a deserved spanking.

        I blame USA Today.

  10. The Catholics I know, primarily from the maternal side of my extended family and the neighborhood I grew up in, come in three varieties: lapsed, nominal (Christmas-&-Easter Catholics), and hard-ons. (I kid the Catholics! There are some decent practicing Catholics mixed in with the true-believing hard-ons, but they tend to be thin on the ground, and even thinner in the pews — and even they trend toward cafeteria Catholicism, picking and choosing among Church doctrines). The clergy sex-abuse scandal, and the Church’s unrealistic position on birth-control, have cost it dearly among the rank and file.

    The 20-something percent cited in the charts overstates the number of actual Catholics, I think. That number (and its constancy over time) reflects people who were raised Catholic maintaining the label as a matter of self-identity (the way many Jews will continue to self-identify as Jewish, even if they’re non-believers). It’s not that these folks are religious, just that they’re chary to self-identify as “nones” (even though that’s what they actually are).

    1. I have to tell you since moving to another very religious region, Wichita, Ks, the Catholics are doing very well here. Over the last decade they have increased nearly 18% to roughly 90,400. The Mormons have done even much better, increasing by nearly 84% to a total of 8000. So this stuff about religion going down, just does not apply in religious country.

    2. I agree – a lot of C&E Catholics that stay Catholic to keep the family peace and enjoy some of the customs.

    3. Sadly, the Catholics I know were nearly all Trump supporters because they were told they would go to hell if they didn’t vote for him.

  11. Thanks for this article about my project.

    Just one point of clarification: the first sentence implies that the study is from the GSS, which might be misleading. The data I used is from the GSS, but I am not affiliated with GSS or NORC.


  12. I wish this trend could also take root in small town middle America, where it’s seen as polite and normal when meeting for the first time, as a part of small talk even, to ask what church one attends and then attempt to convince one to attend the preferred church of the other person. I’ve not sat down to actually count, but I suspect that the total number of churches is greater than the sum total of public shops and businesses in my little burg. This has happened to me more times than I can count, and of course happened to me back in 2008 when I spent two solitary weeks hiking in northern Arkansas and the first person I talked to, the cashier in a little grocery store, asked me if I was saved before I had time to even hand over my money for the two or three things I was buying.

    1. A few years ago I made a comment on a website, it may even have been WEIT, that there are at least a dozen churches within a 3 mile radius of my house. Someone responded scornfully that I was just being hyperbolic.

      Okay, I just spent a few minutes on Google maps actually counting churches within approximately 3 miles of my house. I was woefully optimistic. There are at least 29 churches within 3 miles of my house.

      That number isn’t exact. There may be 1 or 2 that were just over 3 miles. But then again I can think of one right off hand that didn’t show up on my google maps search. I remember it because of the interesting name, Antioch Primitive Baptist. WTF is a Primitive Baptist church?

  13. If we don’t get a handle on climate change there’s no way to tell what this planet will look like in 150 years. We can’t even predict what it will look like in 50 years. Most predictions are dire though if trends continue.

    1. It seems to me that it might be because most of the religious fanatics the evangelicals and hard-core religious right are mostly Protestants. Catholics get nutty about birth control & abortion but aren’t as bigoted & Taliban-like as the religious right. The crazy Catholics are in Ecuador where women are jailed for having miscarriages & accused of having abortions. I am a practicing Catholic, really a pick and choose Catholic who doesn’t believe a bunch of old single men in the Vatican should be making family planning & women’s health decisions. That whole issue is nothing but a male power play over women because I still haven’t gotten an answer when I ask some of these nut cases to show me the Bible passages where Jesus says no birth-control no homosexuality, and no abortions.

  14. … in about 150 years. (Sadly, we won’t be around to see that.)

    I dunno, as the guy who jumped off the top of the Empire State building said as he passed the 26th floor, “so far, so good.”

  15. Among Christian denominations, Protestantism has been the principal gateway to unbelief for hundreds of years. Once you accept the notion of rejecting the authority of a magisterium, self-directed study, and privileging the conscience of the individual believer, it’s only a matter of time before those principles are applied to Christianity itself.

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