In this episode of Science Sunday, I’m going to examine “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic,” a recent publication by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. There’s a lot of data to sort through, and the methodology is quite robust. If you’re interested in perusing or even merely glancing at the data and methodology, visit the above link. For the purpose of this post, I’ll only be focusing on some overlooked results.
There’s a lot of news sites out there that immediately picked up on the fact that the polling data shows “Unaffiliated” representing the largest religious group in 23 states, which is very interesting. But that is not as interesting as a short blurb written on page 5.
The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
In other words, this survey appears to suggest that — not only are the majority of non-religious in America previously religious — but also that young Americans are either leaving or not adopting religion in vast numbers. Roughly one quarter of all young Americans find mainstream religion irrelevant in their daily lives. Why do I find this so interesting? Because this trend was predicted in 2004 by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris. These findings support their hypothesis that as existential security increases, the importance of religion decreases.
Furthermore, the data suggests the US is “on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country” and that “Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes.” In other words, while irreligion is increasing in the US, it’s the major American religions that are losing members at the highest rates. This is, of course, to be expected. Protestant and Catholic branches of Christianity no longer provide comfort and security to many Americans who can find comfort and security on their own. The church is losing its monopoly on predictability.
Note that these numbers do not include atheistic branches of Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Confucianism, and Taoism. And it definitely doesn’t include non-believing Americans who culturally identify as belonging to a particular religion but are too afraid to publicly express their disbelief.
I want to leave this post open-ended because this is fresh data, and a lot of work has to be done before we can make better sense of it. But, of course, you are more than welcome to join in the discussion.