American Religion: Complicated, Not Dead

A new survey suggests that more people of all ages are choosing their own beliefs.

Every American has a religion story. There are those who were raised devout, only to lapse toward lazy Sundays and sporadic church attendance later in life; those who found a different God in adulthood, perhaps after getting married or going through a conversion of the heart; and those who define themselves by their faith, their congregations a source of casseroles and companionship in times of celebration and grief.

Every American has a religion story, which is why it’s a little strange to think of America as an increasingly secular nation. That would be one way to read the Pew Research Center’s new Religious Landscape Study, a massive survey of more than 35,000 American adults. Over the last seven years, it found, the share of Americans who aren’t part of any religion has grown significantly, rising from 16 to nearly 23 percent of the population. A small portion of this group are atheists and agnostics—3 and 4 percent, respectively. More commonly, though, they are detached from organized religion altogether. When asked what religion they identify with, they answer simply: “Nothing in particular.” All in all, roughly one in ten Americans say religion is “not at all important” to them.

But the survey actually reveals something more complex than a slow and steady march toward secularization. Those who didn’t identify with any particular religion were asked a follow-up question: “How important is religion in your life?” The answers reveal that this group might be churchless, but it’s not wholly faithless: 44 percent said religion is “very” or “somewhat” important to them, while 56 percent said religion isn't important to them, according to Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of research. This is a slight drop compared to findings from a similar survey taken in 2007: That year, 48 percent of the “nones” said religion was important to them, while 52 percent said it wasn’t. Even taking this decline into account, there’s a pretty significant group of Americans who don’t identify with a particular denomination or congregation, but who still care about religion to some degree. That’s not the pattern of a Godless nation; it’s the pattern of people finding God on their own terms.

And that holds true even among many of those who do identify with a particular faith. The survey gives at least a partial look at what the researchers call “religious switching”: People converting to other faiths, joining new kinds of churches, or ditching religion altogether. If you count switches among the major traditions in Protestantism (mainline, evangelical, and historically black congregations), roughly 42 percent of Americans no longer consider themselves part of the religion in which they were raised. The researchers point out that this estimate is probably on the low side; many people leave their childhood religions, only to return to them later in life. If those decisions were measured, the estimates of “religious switching” would likely be even higher.

Switching is most prevalent in Christian denominations; members of most religious minority groups are far more likely to keep their faith as they age. Among those surveyed, 80 percent of Hindus and roughly three-quarters of Muslims and Jews still identify with their childhood religions. (Baby Buddhists, on the other hand, are very likely to grow up to become religiously unaffiliated—this was true of 40 percent of those surveyed.)

In certain church communities, the numbers looked different, though: Only 59 percent of those raised Catholic, for example, identify with Catholicism as adults. (Notably, 10 percent of those who left the Church became evangelical, while 20 percent left Christianity altogether.) Roughly a quarter of those who were Orthodox Christians or mainline Protestants as children became religiously unaffiliated as adults, with many others joining different Christian denominations. And only slightly more than a third of those raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses stuck with the faith.

As to why these conversions happened, the report can’t offer much specific detail—“the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing,” as Blaise Pascal might say if he were around to read Pew reports. Perhaps people feel less pressure to stick with the religions into which they were born because they have more access to information about other faiths; perhaps the slowly growing presence of atheism in American culture has prompted more people to think critically about their beliefs, whether for God or against. These are only educated guesses; this survey largely covers the what of American religion, not the why.

Researchers can tell one thing from the data, though: People may be more willing to tolerate religious differences in their relationships than they have in the past—or they may be less willing to change their faiths for a romantic partner. Since the years leading up to 1960, when an estimated 81 percent of people married someone of their own faith, the number of “interfaith” unions has been creeping steadily upward. Among those who took their vows within the last half decade, only 61 percent married someone who shared their religion. The most common “interfaith” pairing was between Christians and people without religious affiliations; these couples accounted for 18 percent of those married after 2010. Again: Not everyone in America is ditching religion, but people are finding more and more flexibility in the institutions that once reinforced steady religious practice, like marriage.

Predictably, much of this movement in religious belief and practice has been happening among Millennials. More than a third of those aged 18 to 33 are religiously unaffiliated, and that proportion is even greater for the younger half of that cohort. Yet the researchers make it clear that changes in American religion are happening across demographic groups. “While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages,” they write. “The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high-school education; and among women as well as men.”

This may make it sound like Christianity has entered a tailspin, but given its continued prominence in American life, that’s probably overdramatic. America is still a Christian nation, just by a somewhat smaller margin. Seven years ago, roughly 78 percent of the country was Christian. Now, that portion is closer to 71 percent, researchers estimate.

The U.S. is also proportionally more evangelical than it has been in the past. Researchers have known for a while that mainline denominations—including many Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian churches, along with a number of other groups—are losing members, and that’s starkly evident here. Over the past seven years, the percentage of Americans who identify with mainline churches has gone from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent.

These denominations are getting older, too. The median age in mainline traditions is now 52, two years older than the median age in 2007. Catholicism faces similar challenges; the Church now accounts for 20.8 percent of Americans, compared to 23.9 percent seven years ago. Although some evangelical denominations are seeing more modest versions of the same trend—the portion of born-again Baptists in the U.S. population, for example, has declined by nearly 2 percentage points—by and large, these groups are holding steady in their membership. As a result, they account for a bigger share of American Christianity, and particularly of American Protestantism.

As to why these conversions happened: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing,” as Blaise Pascal might say if he were around to read Pew reports.

On their own, the demographics of American faiths are fascinating, at least to religion nerds (which, admittedly, might be a rather small group). But these statistics also provide important context for contemporary politics. Since at least the 1980s, white evangelical Christians have been a loyal voting bloc for the Republican Party, particularly on social issues such as gay marriage. Recently, though, overall American attitudes have shifted in favor of same-sex marriage. Changes in evangelical Christianity can’t fully explain this shift—by and large, the group is still staunchly opposed to gay marriage—but they might have contributed.

Although the proportion of evangelicals in America has largely held steady, the racial make-up of the group has changed: Nearly one-quarter of born-again Christians are now ethnic minorities, compared to one-fifth seven years ago. This plays out it in interesting ways on different issues. On gay marriage, for example, Hispanic evangelicals seem to be more liberal than their white counterparts: According to separate 2012 Pew surveys, 66 percent of Hispanic evangelicals were against legalizing same-sex marriages at that time, compared to more than 80 percent of white evangelicals. And the experiences of Hispanics  may—or may not—affect other conservative Christians’ views on immigration. Still, the politics of religion in American haven’t entirely changed; white evangelical Protestants continue to account for 19 percent of the adult U.S. population.

The most important caveat to keep in mind in reading this survey is that religion, and particularly Christianity, is not losing its overall influence in American culture. Culture-war rhetoric often implies an epic battle between Christian conservatives and the creep of secularity; in general, that narrative is an oversimplification of American religion. But what these numbers do suggest is that Americans are claiming more latitude how they practice their faiths. Religious influence is slowing becoming disaggregated, so that the Catholics or the Baptists or the Latter-day Saints don’t necessarily keep their flocks for the duration of their lives, in this world or the next. There may be a growing number of people for whom religion is irrelevant, but this is less true within some parts of the population that are growing most rapidly, particularly the Hispanic community. America continues to be a nation under God—just with more flexibility in how its citizens choose to worship.