A new study reports that Americans who don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition now outnumber Catholics and mainline Protestants, making them second only to evangelical Protestants in terms of size.
According to a Pew Research survey unveiled Tuesday morning, the number of people who say they are Christian in the United States is shrinking, while Americans who claim no faith group is increasing rapidly. A full 22.9 percent no longer list a religious affiliation, compared to 14.7 percent who claim to be mainline Protestants and 20.8 who say they are Catholic. The poll, conducted in 2014, indicates a rapid shift from results published in 2007, when 16 percent of respondents claimed to be mainline Protestant and nearly 24 percent cited Catholicism as their religious identity. Evangelical protestants, by contrast, lost less than a percentage point in that same time.
“The decline of Christians in the U.S. has corresponded with the continued rise in the share of Americans with no religious affiliation (religious ‘nones’),” Michael Lipka wrote in a post on Pew’s Fact Tank blog. “Nearly one-in-five U.S. adults (18 percent) were raised as Christians or members of some other religion, but now say they have no religious affiliation.”
While the data shows a sharp uptick in people who do not claim a specific faith tradition, this new demographic is a complex group, and the exact cause of their expansion is a matter of debate. Earning the nickname “nones” because they respond to questions about religious affiliation by saying “none,” researchers were quick to point out that being religiously unaffiliated does not mean abandoning religious belief: less than a third of “nones” — 31 percent — claim to be atheist or agnostic. That’s more than reported in 2007, but another sub-group of religiously unaffiliated — 30 percent — also told researchers religion is either “very” or “somewhat” important to them. This explains a similar 2012 survey from Pew, which found that two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they believe in God and more than 20 percent pray daily.
Meanwhile, the largest proportion of “nones” (39 percent) didn’t deny the existence of God, but also said that religion wasn’t important to their lives. It’s unclear whether members of this middle group are “actually” atheist or agnostic but eschew those labels, were previously religious but have since abandoned their faith, or if they just don’t care that much either way about religion (or all of the above).
The diversity of this group makes its political concerns difficult to quantify, but there are a few emerging trends about the general interests of “nones.” The 2012 Pew survey on the group reported that Americans without a religious tradition prefer progressive policies, and make up roughly a quarter of the Democratic Party. They are disproportionately supportive of same-sex marriage compared to the general population, for instance, and overwhelmingly favor making abortion legal in all instances. And while “nones” — atheist or otherwise — are not inherently anti-religious as a collective, they are staunch defenders of the separation of church and state: a full 66 percent think churches should stay out of politics, according to the 2012 study.
Other surveys have indicated that the demographic skews young, making up a solid 33 percent of Americans aged 18-34, according to a 2014 study from the Public Religion Research Institute. Among their younger cohorts, they are consistently the most liberal group on issues of reproductive health: 74 percent of unaffiliated millennials oppose requiring a prescription to obtain emergency contraception such as the “morning after” pill, compared to 55 percent of millennials overall.
The Pew survey also offered details about the drop in Christian Americans, who dipped nearly 8 percentage points in just 7 years, from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. The report’s authors said this was driven largely by declines among Catholics and mainline Protestants, although black Protestant populations remained steady and there was a “modest” increase in non-Christian religious groups such as Hindus and Muslims. In addition, researchers noted that while the Christian population is getting smaller as a whole, Christian communities are becoming more diverse: Hispanic populations, for instance, have steadily increased within evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, and Catholic communities.