Back in 2015, the Pew Research Center released a landmark study about the changing religious landscape in America, and there was one graph in particular I still think about to this day. I’ve even used it in presentations I’ve given to various groups over the years.
It involved religious “switching” and showed that people were leaving Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism, and Historically Black Protestantism at a much faster rate than they were entering. Similarly, people were “joining” the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated much more frequently than they were exiting. (Evangelical Protestants were growing, too, but at a much slower rate.)
The same 2014 Religious Landscape Study also found that 22.8% of Americans were Unaffiliated compared to 70.6% who were different varieties of Christian.
It raised a fairly straightforward question: If all those people were leaving Christianity, and many people were becoming nonreligious, at what point would the “Unaffiliated” become the majority in the country?
It’s not an easy question to answer. It’s certainly not a straight mathematical one because variables matter here. Are people leaving or joining religions at the same rate all the time? At some point, won’t we “max out” and hit a ceiling on all the people who might be nonreligious?
Today, the Pew Research Center is attempting to answer that question.
A new analysis attempts to project what religion in the U.S. might look like in 50 years, in 2070, assuming recent trends will continue. Interestingly enough, the researchers considered the outcomes based on four scenarios:
- Steady switching. What if the rates of movement in and out of Christianity remain the same as today? That would mean roughly 31% of Christians shed their religious label before turning 30 while only 21% of nonreligious Americans find God. This seems implausible because switching numbers are bound to slow down over time after the likely switchers have already switched.
- Rising disaffiliation with limits. This puts brakes on Scenario 2, suggesting that after a while, we’ve maxed out on people eager to leave Christianity, and the percentage of Christians never goes below 50%.
- Rising disaffiliation without limits. This cuts the brakes, and suggests that people would leave Christianity even after Christians are in the minority. This is also not very realistic.
- No switching: What if no one changes religions anymore? That would still lead to a shift over time since younger people are typically less religious than older Americans. There’s no reason to think this is realistic.
The bottom line? No matter what scenario they used, the future of Christianity looks grim while the Nones (not just atheists and agnostics, obviously) get closer to—or take over—the majority.
The best-case scenario (no limits) has the numbers at 35% Christians, 52% Nones.
The worst-case scenario (no switching) has the numbers at 54% Christians, 34% Nones.
The actual answer lies somewhere between those two extremes. But in all four scenarios, the Christian numbers fall while the nonreligious numbers rise, and three of them have Christians in the minority.
It’s Scenario 2 (Rising disaffiliation with limits) that Pew researchers believe most closely matches reality, and in that situation, Christians will lose their majority status by around 2050, get outnumbered by the Nones after 2055, and continue losing ground after that:
If the pace of switching before the age of 30 were to speed up initially but then hold steady, Christians would lose their majority status by 2050, when they would be 47% of the U.S. population (versus 42% for the unaffiliated). In 2070, “nones” would constitute a plurality of 48%, and Christians would account for 39% of Americans.
If you’re wondering why religious switching is happening at all, well, hire a sociologist. But some explanations include a push for secularization, anti-women/anti-LGBTQ views held by conservative religious zealots, child sex abuse scandals, religious intermarriage, and the ability for religious doubters to find helpful resources and forums online for their new beliefs.
If these numbers really do pan out this way, it also would raise a lot of interesting questions about the future of religion. For example, what happens when nonreligiosity becomes the norm?
Sociologist Ryan P. Burge, who’s written extensively (affiliate link) about the changing religious demographics, raised that theory in an email to me:
We have no frame of reference for when the United States is only 50% Christian. It’s always been the default faith in the United States.
When that changes, that can have a profound impact on how people feel about it. Lots of liberals push back against it now because it’s the “establishment” religion. But, what if it’s not at some point in the future?
No one knows what happens then. Could be the most rebellious thing a young person can do who was raised atheist is to become a devout Roman Catholic.
The answer may rest on whether reason and logic outweigh the power of contrarianism. (Given the bizarre rightward swing of some atheists on matters like social justice, embracing the latter isn’t out of the question.)
Another question worth considering: In a nation where nonreligious Americans are close to or finally in the majority, will that translate to political power? It wouldn’t do us much good if Republicans, who are 99% Christian, controlled Congress while the Supreme Court maintained its conservative religious majority.
Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, sees these results as vindication of what his organization has been saying for years:
This report confirms what we’ve long been saying: the American people are realizing that religion isn’t necessary to lead a moral, compassionate, and ethical life. And the hypocrisy, scandals, extremism, bigotry, and lies of too many religious leaders and their denominations are only accelerating this trend. It’s our obligation as atheist leaders to be responsive to the needs of this rapidly growing demographic and create the sort of welcoming local communities that fully meet the needs of the newly nonreligious.
And this should serve as a wakeup call for politicians who have decided to double down on White Christian Nationalism in recent years. The future of our nation is secular and pluralistic. Pandering to a shrinking group of fundamentalists is a losing strategy.
I feel the same way. The fact is the shifting religious demographics are only useful if they lead to a change in the culture as well. That won’t happen unless those in power understand the fact that Christians (especially conservative Christians) represent a minority of Americans. And while the rest of us don’t agree on much, we overwhelmingly respect religious pluralism and the principle of church/state separation.