US Christians could drop as secularism rises, Pew Research Center finds

The United States has long prided itself on people’s freedom to choose whatever religion they like. The majority has long chosen Christianity.

By 2070, that may no longer be the case, according to the Pew Research Center. If current trends continue, Christians could make up less than half of the population — and as little as a third — in 50 years. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated — or “nones” — could make up close to half the population. And the percentage of Americans who identify as Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and adherents of other non-Christian faiths could double.

Those are among the major findings of a new report from Pew regarding the United States’ religious future, a future in which Christianity, though diminished, persists, while non-Christian faiths grow amid rising secularization.

American secularism is growing — and growing more complicated

Researchers projected possible religious futures for the United States using a number of factors, including birthrates, migration patterns, demographics including age and sex, and the current religious landscape. They also looked at how religion is passed from one generation to another and how often people switch religions — in particular Christians who become nones, a number that has been increasing in recent years.

Researchers projected four different scenarios, based on differing rates of religious switching, from a continued increase to no switching at all. The unaffiliated were projected to grow under all four.

Currently, about a third (31 percent) of Christians become disaffiliated before they turn 30, according to Pew Research. Twenty-one percent of nones become Christian as young adults. Should those switching rates remain stable, Christians would make up 46 percent of the population by 2070, while nones would comprise 41 percent.

If disaffiliation rates continue to grow but are capped at 50 percent of Christians leaving the faith, 39 percent of Americans are projected to be Christian by 2070, with 48 percent of Americans identifying as nones. With no limit placed on the percentage of people leaving Christianity and with continued growth in disaffiliation, Christians would be 35 percent of the population, with nones making up a majority of Americans (52 percent).

If all switching came to a halt, Christians would remain a slight majority (54 percent), and nones would make up 34 percent of Americans, according to the model.

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Non-Christian faiths would rise to 12 to 13 percent of the population, largely because of migration, in each scenario. Migration does affect the percentage of Christians, as most migrants to the United States are Christians, said Conrad Hackett, associate director of research and senior demographer at Pew Research Center. “Still the greatest amount of change in the U.S., we think currently and in the future, will come from switching,” he said.

Researchers stressed that the report contained projections that are based on data and mathematical models, and are not predictions of 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,” they wrote.

One reason for the decline in the proportion of Christians and the growth among the nones in the models is age. While Christians have more children than nones, they also skew older. Pew estimates that the average Christian in the United States is 43, which is 10 years older than the average none.

“The unaffiliated are having and raising unaffiliated children while Christians are more likely to be near the end of their lives than others,” Stephanie Kramer, a senior researcher at Pew, wrote in an email.

Using mathematical models, Pew also has projected the future of religion around the world. Those models were adapted for different regions, Hackett said. Muslims, for example, tend to have the youngest population and the highest fertility rates, he said, driving the growth of that faith. But in the Persian Gulf states, migration has brought many Christians from other countries to the region as temporary workers.

The current report takes advantage of the amount of data collected about the U.S. religious landscape. Researchers also looked at intergenerational transmission for the first time, Kramer said.

“The variables we use to study that were: What is the mother’s religion? And what is the teen’s religion?” she said. “If that was a match, we consider the mother’s religion transmitted.”

Researchers also looked at a relatively new trend of disaffiliation among older Americans. Sociologists have long focused on younger people, who are most likely to switch religions. But in the United States and other countries, older people are starting to switch at growing rates themselves.

“It’s not as large-scale, but it’s still significant,” Hackett said. “And it’s contributing to the religious change that we have experienced and that we expect to experience in the years ahead.”

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Hackett said that the projections for the country do not show the end of Christianity or of religion in general, which he expects to remain robust. And most nones, while claiming no religion, do not identify as atheists. Instead, Kramer said, the United States appears to be going through a pattern of secularization that has happened in other countries, though “we may be a bit behind.”

Other factors outside the model — such as changing immigration patterns and religious innovation — could lead to a revival of Christianity in the United States, according to the report. But none of its models shows a reversal of the decline of Christian affiliation, which dropped from 78 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2020, according to Pew research.

In the report, researchers note that “there is no data on which to model a sudden or gradual revival of Christianity (or of religion in general) in the U.S.”

“That does not mean a religious revival is impossible,” they wrote. “It means there is no demographic basis on which to project one.”

— Religion News Service

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