The decline of Christianity shows no signs of stopping…… | News and reports
The Pew Research Center does not rule out a future religious revival in America.
But given the country’s ongoing trends away from religious affiliation, experts aren’t sure what it would be like to see a return.
Analyzing surveys of religious identity and religious “change” dating back to 1972 and trying to project the American religious landscape out to 2070, they cannot say what demographic signs might point to a wave of conversions to come.
“We’ve never seen it, and we don’t have the data to model a religious reversal,” Stephanie Kramer, senior researcher at Pew, told CT. “Some say recovery never happens in an advanced economy. After secularization, you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube. But we don’t know. We just don’t have the data.
The data they have, from 50 years of research from the General Social Survey and Pew’s own survey of 15,000 adults in 2019, indicates that the current trend is inexorable. People are abandoning Christianity. They will continue to do so. And if you’re trying to predict the future religious landscape in America, according to Pew, the question isn’t whether Christianity will decline. It’s how fast and how far.
In a new study today, Pew predicts that by 2070, Christians will likely make up less than half of the US population.
Currently, 64% of people call themselves Christians, but nearly a third of those who were raised as Christians end up moving to “none” or “nothing in particular”, while only about 20% of those who were brought up without religion become Christians. If this rate of change continues at a steady pace, then in about half a century only about 46% of Americans will identify as Christians.
If the rate of change continues to accelerate, as it has since the 1990s, the percentage calling themselves Christians will fall to 35%.
The rate of change could also slow down. “Trends don’t tend to continue forever,” Kramer said, “and there’s probably a core of Christians who are committed and never go anywhere.” If the future goes this route, Pew predicts that just under 40% of the population will identify as Christian by 2070.
“Although the scenarios in this report vary in the extent of religious disaffiliation they project,” the study says, “they all show that Christians continue to decline as a share of the U.S. population even under the counterfactual hypothesis that all change ended in 2020.
Few people who leave Christianity seem to join other religions. Today, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and all non-Christian faiths in America make up about 6% of the population. There is not enough information for researchers to isolate the differences between these groups. They project that, overall, non-Christian denominations will double in America by 2070, primarily by having children and raising them in religion.
The radical change, according to Pew, will come with the “noes”. Non-persons – people who say they have no religious identity, although they may still hold certain Christian beliefs and engage in certain spiritual practices – are expected to rise from around 30% today to 52% in 50 years.
“Modeling the Future of Religion in America” is a new endeavor for Pew, which has previously focused on landscaping religion in America but not trying to predict where things will go. The picture the study paints, however, is not all that different from what Pew and other religious scholars have been saying in recent years.
Robert P. Jones, founder of the Public Religion Research Institute write an obituary for “White Christian America” in 2019, based on changing racial demographics and trends in religious disaffiliation.
Gallup started regularly giving people the option from “none” to a question of religious preference in 2008. The number of people giving this answer immediately began to increase. In 2012, Pew reported that none were “up”, which prompted dozens of analyzes on the phenomenon.
Ryan Burge, professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, wrote in his 2021 book None that there was a time when being unaffiliated with religion seemed like “just a rounding error”. But then they “surpassed 10% of the population in 1996, crossed the 15% threshold a decade later and managed to reach 20% in 2014”. When he downloaded the raw data from the General Social Survey in 2018, the size of the unaffiliated was roughly equal to that of Catholics and Evangelicals.
The new report from Pew, however, clearly identifies the mechanism behind the change. By isolating different demographic factors, he shows that declining Christian birth rates and non-Christian immigrants are not significant causes of change in America.
The main reason is change – Christians decide they are no longer Christians. According to the report, this mainly happens to people between the ages of 15 and 29, with an additional 7% of Christians disaffiliating from the faith after the age of 30.
“The switching happened regularly, which didn’t happen before,” Kramer told CT. “Before, if you met someone on the street and their father and mother were Christians, then they were Christians too. This is no longer always true. For about a third of people, this is no longer true.
Pew has no theory on why more people are changing. The research center focuses on the data, leaving the explanations to others.
Some, drawing on the work of the late sociologist Rodney Stark, have argued that this was caused by increasingly liberal denominations. They point to the decline of the mainline churches. The United Church of Christ, the first major denomination to embrace same-sex marriage, lost more than 40 percent of its members in the 17 years following this decision. According to this argument, if a church emphasizes the same issues and concerns as left-wing political activists, then there is no reason to do the extra work of belonging to a church.
Others linked the trend to conservative politics, saying evangelical association with Republicans is hunt young from the church. The rise of the gospel moment and the rise in the number of no votes in some election years are cited to support the argument.
It could be that left and right have this effect, but Kramer warns that the trend in the United States appears similar to what researchers have seen in other countries, where the political landscape is completely different. Perhaps it is not the decisions of the churches that are driving the change, but wider social developments.
Many sociologists, dating back to Max Weber, have argued that secularization is inevitable as society progresses. Globalization, industrialization and technology are making it harder and harder for people to believe. The big change we see today, however, is not really a rapid change in what people believe. Atheists remain in the single digits in the United States. But while many non affirm the existence of God and even pray, they don’t want to be tied to any religious group or identity.
“We don’t know what’s driving all of this,” Kramer said. “There are theories that make sense, but we don’t know.”
As the researchers mapped out possible paths for the future, they tried to keep in mind the data they didn’t have. Extrapolation from trends does not take into account the kind of dramatic events that shape generations.
“It is possible,” the report states, “that events outside the model – such as war, economic depression, climate crisis, changing immigration patterns or religious innovation – could reverse the opposite trends. current changes of religion”.
Revival could happen. Nothing in the current data indicates that this will be the case.