A major study on religion in the U.S. released Thursday has Christians at 70.6 percent, a drop from 78.4 percent when the survey was last conducted in 2007.
Self-described membership fell across all major Christian traditions between 2007 and 2014, with evangelical Protestants enjoying the most stability, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study. Non-Christian faiths, meanwhile, are on the rise.
And in Pew’s most surprising finding, those identifying as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” rose to 22.8 percent of respondents, a total seven-year increase of 6.7 percent. The “nothing in particular” camp — called “religiously ambivalent” — saw the greatest increase, gaining 3.7 percent of Americans.
This makes “unaffiliated” the second-biggest religious group in the country, surpassing self-reported Catholics (20.8 percent) for the first time in recent memory. (RELATED: Pope Confirms US Visit Later This Year)
“It’s truly stunning that the percentage of the Nones continues to rise,” said University of Notre Dame scholar David Campbell in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. (“Nones” is a catchall term for those with no religious affiliation.) “Those of us who watch this closely keep expecting to see that number to reach a ceiling; I’d have expected that line at some point to plateau and reverse.”
Campbell is the co-author of the landmark 2010 book "American Grace," which documents the social and political effects of religious change in the U.S. He pointed out to TheDCNF that the increase in irreligious Americans is “changing too quickly to be simply generational replacement— that’s what makes American secularism different from Europe.”
Instead of steady European-style decline, Campbell says, the rising tide of “Nones” in the last 20 years reflects a tendency in American religion for society to change in “shocks and aftershocks.” He compared the sudden change to the unexpected rise of evangelicalism in the 1970s, in which evangelicals became a serious political and social force before observers could even settle on a label for them. Indeed, the U.S. has swung between periods of heavy religious affiliation and disaffiliation since its founding.
Sarah Jones, a representative of the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told TheDCNF that “the politicization of Christianity is partially to blame” for the decline in Christian affiliation. But she also noted that “Americans overall, and young adults in particular, have received unprecedented exposure to diverse beliefs and viewpoints via the Internet,” which she says is another likely factor. (RELATED: Republican Betrayal Haunts DC March For Life)
For his part, Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore hailed the report as “good news for the church,” saying in a press statement that “we do not have more atheists in America today than in previous generations. We simply have more honest atheists in America.”
Christians shouldn't fear being outsiders in the culture, Moore said: The churches that will survive the latest trends, he said in a statement, “are the vibrant, countercultural congregations that aren't afraid to not be seen as normal to the surrounding culture.”
Looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election, Campbell highlighted two things to keep in mind. First, while many “Nones” are not very interested in politics — as he calls them, “people who are sort of ‘meh’ about religion” and “less interested in civic engagement across the board” — the Democratic Party is increasingly appealing to a base of “more hardened secularists.” Democrats, he says, may therefore consolidate their policies to reflect those voters’ and operatives’ preferences.
Jones, of the church/state watchdog group, agreed, telling TheDCNF that “it should be easier to elect non-Christian candidates,” suggesting that in future election years “voters overall may be less motivated by culture-war platforms.”
But another under-reported factor, Campbell says, is “growing ethnic and racial diversity within religious traditions.” While many associate Catholicism’s stability in the U.S. with Hispanic immigration, Pew found that every American religious group is becoming more diverse.
As 2016 approaches, for instance, “if you see Republican candidates courting an evangelical base, that’s increasingly not the stereotypical white evangelical voter.” In upcoming elections, according to Campbell, “to tap into any religious constituency will require candidates to be aware of that group’s growing ethnic and racial diversity.”
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