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What will American religion look like in 50 years?

A new study from Pew Research Center makes an educated guess about the future of American Christianity

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

If current religious trends hold steady, Christians will lose their majority status in the United States within the next 50 years, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

Over the same period, the population of religious “nones” will likely swell in size until it includes around half of all Americans, the report said.

Such shifts would fuel political and social change, disrupting everything from family life to foreign policy. But rather than look at these potential ramifications, Pew’s study focuses on helping readers understand how the projections for 2070 came together.

“Theories about the root causes of religious change and speculation about its societal impact are not the focus of this report. The main contribution of this study is to analyze recent trends and show how the U.S. religious landscape would shift if they continued,” researchers wrote.

How did Pew model the future of American religion?

To create the new projections, Pew’s researchers drew on established mathematical techniques and all sorts of religion data. The inputs were factors like the average age of a faith group and fertility measures, as well as findings on how common it is for someone who is raised Christian or nonreligious to switch faith groups in adulthood.

That “religious switching” factor was the one that researchers played with in order to test a set of hypothetical scenarios. Projections for 2070 changed based on whether they kept the switching rate steady, sped it up or (probably wrongly) assumed that religious switching would become a thing of the past.

“Depending on whether religious switching continues at recent rates, speeds up or stops entirely, the projections show Christians of all ages shrinking from 64% to between a little more than half (54%) and just above one-third (35%) of all Americans by 2070. Over that same period, ‘nones’ would rise from the current 30% to somewhere between 34% and 52% of the U.S. population,” Pew reported.

The new report, researchers warned, is not a road map to a certain future. Instead, it’s a look at what could happen if certain research-backed assumptions hold true.

“It is possible that events outside the study’s model — such as war, economic depression, climate crisis, changing immigration patterns or religious innovations — could reverse current religious switching trends, leading to a revival of Christianity,” researchers wrote.

Pew’s starting point

Pew’s four main projections have the same starting point: data on the American religious landscape in 2020.

Here’s the share of Americans, including children, who, at that time, belonged to the three (admittedly broad) faith groups that Pew focused on in the study:

  • Christian: 64%.
  • Religiously unaffiliated: 30%.
  • Non-Christian religion (like Jewish or Muslim): 6%.

Scenario No. 1: Movement into and out of Christianity remains stable

Under this level of religious switching, the U.S. religious landscape would look like this in 2070, according to Pew:

  • Christian: 46%.
  • Religiously unaffiliated: 41%.
  • Non-Christian religion: 13%.

Scenario No. 2: Movement out of Christianity will become more common, then level off

In this scenario, researchers capped the switching rate at 50% for Christians to account for observed patterns in other countries.

“The ‘rising disaffiliation with limits’ scenario (No. 2) best illustrates what would happen if recent generational trends in the U.S. continue, but only until they reach the boundary of what has been observed around the world, including in Western Europe,” researchers wrote.

Under this level of religious switching, the U.S. religious landscape would look like this in 2070, according to Pew:

  • Christian: 39%.
  • Religiously unaffiliated: 48%.
  • Non-Christian religion: 12%.

Scenario No. 3: Movement out of Christianity will become more and more common

Unlike the prior scenario, this scenario puts no limit on the switching rate for those who were born Christian. Unsurprisingly, this projection involves the largest growth in “nones.”

Under this level of religious switching, the U.S. religious landscape would look like this in 2070, according to Pew:

  • Christian: 35%.
  • Religiously unaffiliated: 52%.
  • Non-Christian religion: 12%.

Scenario No. 4: Switching ceases to take place.

In this scenario, which researchers acknowledged is “not realistic,” movement into and out of faith groups stops happening. Changes to the size of each faith groupswould be driven by the other factors used in the analysis, like birth rates.

Under this level of religious switching, the U.S. religious landscape would look like this in 2070, according to Pew:

  • Christian: 54%.
  • Religiously unaffiliated: 34%.
  • Non-Christian religion: 12%.

What’s the future of American religion?

Keen observers likely noticed that none of the four scenarios involve a future in which switching into Christianity becomes more common. Such a “religious revival” is certainly within the realms of possibility, researchers noted, but it would require some sort of unpredictable — and, therefore, not easily measurable — event.

It’s more likely that the share of Americans who identify as Christian will continue to decrease over time, Pew reported.

“While the scenarios in this report vary in the extent of religious disaffiliation they project, they all show Christians continuing to shrink as a share of the U.S. population. ... At the same time, the unaffiliated are projected to grow under all four scenarios,” researchers wrote.

Pew’s report does not argue that one of the four scenarios will come to fruition exactly as it’s been laid out. Rather than try to predict the future perfectly, researchers focused on exploring a set of possibilities, which they plan to continue studying in the future.

“Though some scenarios are more plausible than others, the future is uncertain, and it is possible for the religious composition of the United States in 2070 to fall outside the ranges projected,” the study said.