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Christian share in U.S. sinking fast as religious landscape changes

Pew survey also finds church pews emptier, while share of ‘religious nones’ grows

Father Cody Jorgensen celebrates Mass at the St. Catherine of Siena University Parish and Newman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.
Father Cody Jorgensen celebrates Mass at the St. Catherine of Siena University Parish and Newman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Both the share and the actual number of American adults who identify as Christians are dropping fast, down 12% (or 11 million adults) since 2009. Meanwhile, the share of religious “nones” — adults who describe themselves as unaffiliated, atheist or agnostic — has been climbing.

That’s according to a new report by the Pew Research Center that says the decline in adults who identify as Christian is so broad-based it’s happening across all demographics: men and women, whites, African Americans and Hispanics and among both college graduates and the less-educated. The decrease spans regions of the country and political party affiliations, occurring faster among Democrats, but also within the Republican Party. And while the change is most dramatic among younger adults, even baby boomers are part of the shift.

Father Cody Jorgensen celebrates Mass at the St. Catherine of Siena University Parish and Newman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.
Father Cody Jorgensen celebrates Mass at the St. Catherine of Siena University Parish and Newman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“What we see in the data in the United States is a decline in share so steep that it actually suggests that the number of Christians is declining though the U.S. population is growing,” said Gregory A. Smith, Pew’s associate director of research. “Christians are declining not just as a share, but in terms of their real numbers.”

The report found that in 2009, 77% of U.S. adults, or 178 million people, surveyed identified as Christian. In 10 years that number has dropped 12%, to 167 million people. And during the same time span, the religiously unaffiliated grew from 17% to 26%, an increase of 30 million American adults.

The share identifying as belonging to other faiths — Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and others — has increased modestly from 2009’s 5% to 7% today.

Room in the pews

The share of Christians who attend religious services at least once a month hasn’t changed, holding steady at 62 percent. But there are far fewer of them to pack the pews in local churches.

“Religious nones are not all nonbelievers, but they do not go to church or attend regular services. So even as church attendance is steady among Christians, we see a decline,” said Smith.

Pew Research Center

The data also shows that while older generations were on average religiously observant, younger generations are far less so. For example, the vast majority of America’s silent generation (born between 1928 and 1945) is religious, primarily identifying as Christian, and 6 in 10 attend services regularly, as do about half of baby boomers (those born between 1946-64). As those older Americans die, however, they are being replaced by “a new generation of adults with far less attachment to religion,” said Smith, who noted just half of millennials (born 1981-1996) identify as Christian, while 40 percent have no religious affiliation. Two-thirds of millennials say they rarely attend services.

The portion of millennials who never attend services and those who attend at least weekly are an identical 22%.

A rising share of U.S. adults overall, 27%, say they “never” attend religious services.

But why?

Brandon R. Peterson, an associate professor/lecturer at the University of Utah, wasn’t involved with the Pew study, but he interacts with young adults every day and hears them discuss what draws them to religion or turns them away.

Some claim technology has explained the world and how it works in ways that “push God to the margins.” Students tell him they believe in science, not religion, though he’s not convinced that’s an overarching explanation.

He’s also heard from young people who are what author Charles Taylor in the book “Secular Age” described as “disenchanted,” rather than viewing the world as an enchanted, magical place where God is present in all things, which was a more common view in the past. Young people often now see God as more separate, he noted.

More common, though, Peterson said, is young people bringing up scandals and talking about faith leaders who say one thing but act differently.

He thinks a lot of young people flee religious institutions, but not necessarily God. “I see a lot of students who want to distinguish between religious institutions and spiritual beliefs,” he said.

The decrease in church attendance raises interesting questions, but the future is hard to predict, according to report author Smith.

“We know from all kinds of research that being engaged in religious institutions, being a religiously active person has historically been associated with all kinds of things: political engagement, civic engagement, volunteering, charitable giving. So one obvious question that emerges as you see religious changes in the U.S. is what are the downstream consequences for that? I don’t have the answer, but I think that’s a key question for researchers and observers.”

Peterson said that religious institutions at their best also serve to build community for people and play a major social function as a source of mutual support. Young adults often speak of isolation and how hard it is to build meaningful friendships and relationships. Fading institutions may increase that sense of disconnection.

Another question is whether today’s young adults will become more religious as they age.

Smith said that in the past, people have tended to become more religious with age, particularly in terms of becoming more prayerful. But there’s no indication they became more likely to identify with a religion.

While the data helps illustrate broad patterns, he noted, it may not apply on an individual level. Some people likely will become more religious and more observant during their personal journeys, while others won’t.

By the numbers

Within Christianity, both Protestantism and Catholicism are shrinking in America, the report said: 43% of U.S. adults are Protestant, compared to 51% a decade ago. While 23% were Catholic then, the number now is 20%.

Father Cody Jorgensen celebrates Mass at the St. Catherine of Siena University Parish and Newman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.
Father Cody Jorgensen celebrates Mass at the St. Catherine of Siena University Parish and Newman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

In the survey, Christians who identify as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held steady over the decade at 2% of the U.S. population. The share who identify as Jewish was an identical steady 2%, while those identifying as Muslim was a constant 1%, identical to the share identifying as Buddhist. Hindu faithful reached 1% in the decade and those claiming other non-Christian faiths increased from 2% to 3%.

As for religious “nones,” 4% of the population say they are atheists, 5% are agnostic and 17% say their religion is “nothing in particular.”

The overall share attending religious services at least once a month fell 7%, identical to the rise in the share who say they attend less often. Just 45% say they attend services at least monthly.