Losing our religion? Latest study shows American faiths in decline as 'none' preference grows

Though still the dominant religious faith in the United States, Christianity is rapidly losing adherents, according to a Pew Research Center study released this week. At the same time, the number of people who identify with no religion at all continues to climb.

“This is happening nationally as well as right here in the Bible Belt,” said Herb Silverman, an atheist who is a retired College of Charleston math professor.

Researchers like to call atheists, agnostics or the otherwise unaffiliated the “nones” because when asked what their religious preference is, they're likely to say, “None.”

Silverman attributes the increase in the number of “nones” to people being turned off by positions taken by organized religion.

“People are feeling marginalized with this extreme religiosity,” he said. He cited opposition by some Christians to same-sex marriage as an example of a position that is driving people away from religion.

The numbers from the Pew study bear out what Silverman said about the changes taking place all over the country.

Between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the population decreased from 78 percent to a little less than 71 percent, while the unaffiliated increased from a little more than 16 percent to almost 23 percent.

Protestants now comprise only 46.5 percent of what was once a predominantly Protestant country. The losses among Christian faiths were most dramatic among mainline, or liberal, Protestants and Roman Catholics, Pew researchers said.

Pew found that 13 percent of U.S. adults are former Catholics. The study put the number of Catholic adults at 51 million, or just over one-fifth of the U.S. population, a drop of about 3 percent over seven years. In 2007, Catholics made up about one-quarter of Americans.

Pew researchers, however, acknowledge those conclusions differ from those of some other major studies that found only slight declines or even a slight uptick in the numbers of Catholics in the past couple of years. Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which tracks American Catholicism, puts the U.S. adult Catholic population at 61 million.

The Pew study found a slight drop, about 1 percent, in the evangelical share of the population, which now comprises a quarter of Americans. But the overall number of evangelicals rose to about 62 million people.

“Evangelicals held their own,” said the Rev. Steve Wood, rector of St. Andrews Church in Mount Pleasant and bishop of the Diocese of the Carolinas of the Anglican Church of North America.

“People look at these kinds of reports and say. 'Christianity has to change its teachings,' but the people who got hit the hardest are the ones who have adapted to the culture. It is the mainline denominations, the ones that are making peace with the culture, that are losing the most members.”

Wood says the Pew study is good news for the Christian church. “It brings great clarity,” he said. “I don't think we necessarily have more atheists in America, we just have more honest atheists.”

Silverman, who is president of Secular Coalition for America, also said he thinks more atheists and agnostics are now willing to go public with their lack of faith. “We've taken a page from the LGBT movement and we're coming out of the closet as atheists,” he said.

Researchers have long debated whether people with no religion should be defined as secular since the category includes those who believe in God or consider themselves “spiritual.” But the new Pew study found increasing signs of secularism.

Last year, 31 percent of “nones” said they were atheist or agnostic, compared to 25 percent in 2007, and the percentage who said religion was important to them dropped.

Greg Smith, Pew's associate research director, said the findings point to significant changes among the religiously unaffiliated, not just a shift in how people describe themselves. Secular groups have become increasingly organized to counter bias against them and keep religion out of public life through lawsuits and lobbying lawmakers.

The rise in secularist influence has its roots in the Enlightenment, said Dr. Michael Bryant, dean of the School of Christian Studies at Charleston Southern University.

“We would need to go back to philosophy and to certain ideas that are being promoted,” Bryant said. “One idea that would be promoted is that religion doesn't provide the answers to life's questions.”

Bryant said he personally believes religion can and does provide answers to life's questions. “But there has been a strong push to argue that Christianity and science are incompatible. We strive to investigate Scripture, we strive to investigate science. The way we approach Christian higher education is that all of the world is God's world. Nothing is off limits for investigation.”

And though the influence of Christianity in the U.S. may appear to be ebbing in the 21st century, it is part of a natural ebb and flow, Bryant said.

“In the West, in the northern hemisphere, there is a hardening,” Bryant said. In the southern hemisphere, in Africa and in China, the Christian church is growing in leaps and bounds, Bryant said. “You have more Chinese Christians than we have Southern Baptists in America.”

Bryant said he thinks the coming age will still be religious, but that lines will be more sharply drawn between three main groups. “We'll have conservative evangelical Christians, a conservative form of Islam and we'll have secularists.”

According to the Pew study, one of the most important factors in the declining percentage of Christians and the rise of the “nones” is generational replacement. As the millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations.

Among young millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24), 36 percent are religiously unaffiliated, among older millennials (ages 25-33), it's 34 percent.

At Columbus and Meeting streets in Charleston this week, 22-year-old Carter Wooten adjusted his earbud headphones as he walked his bicycle to the curb outside Bi-Lo. A self-described agnostic, Wooten said he didn't grow up in a particularly religious family and typically avoids talking about his beliefs, or lack thereof.

“You don't broadcast it. That's for sure,” he said. “I think times need to change. People aren't so accepting.”

But another man waiting for a bus across the street said his age had nothing to do with his faith, or lack of faith.

“I haven't been to church in almost 55 years,” said John Brown before he hopped on a No. 20 bus. “I'm 59!”

Regarding other religions, the Pew study found an increase in membership of non-Christian faiths, driven mainly by growing numbers of Muslims and Hindus. Despite the increase, their numbers remain small. Muslims and Hindus each comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. The number of Jews rose slightly over the period, from 1.7 percent to 1.9 percent of Americans.

Overall, religious groups have become more ethnically diverse along with the broader population. Latinos now comprise one-third of U.S. Roman Catholics, although fewer U.S. Latinos identify as Catholic overall. One-quarter of evangelicals and 14 percent of mainline Protestants are racial minorities. Membership in historically black churches has remained relatively stable over the period.

The survey of 35,000 people, titled “America's Changing Religious Landscape,” was conducted in English and Spanish from June 4 through Sept. 30 of last year and has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.6 percentage points.

Christians decline as share of U.S. population; other faiths and the unaffiliated are growing

  Historically black6.96.5-
 Orthodox Christian0.600.5-
 Jehovah's Witness0.70.8-
 Other Christian0.30.4-
Non-Christian faiths4.75.9+1.2
 Other world religions**<0.30.3-
 Other faiths**1.21.5+0.3
Nothing in particular12.115.8+3.7
Don't know/refused0.80.6-0.2
* The "change" column displays only statisticlly significant changes; blank cells indicate that the difference between 2007 and 2014 is within the margin of error.
** The "other world religions" category includes Sikhs, Baha'is, Taoists, Jains and a variety of other world religions. The "other faiths" category includes Unitarians, New Age religions, Native American religions and a number of other non-Christian faiths.
Source: 2014 Religious Landscape Study, conducted June 4-Sept. 30, 2014. Figures may not add to 100 percent and nested figures may not add to subtotals indicated due to rounding.
Generational replacement helping drive growth of unaffiliated, decline or mainline Protestantism and Catholicism
 Silent generation
(born 1928-1945)
Baby Boomers
(born 1946-1964)
Generation X
(born 1965-1980)
Older Millennials
(born 1981-1989)
Younger Millennials
(born 1990-1996)
  Historically black57766
 Other Christian groups33433
Other faiths45688
Don't know/refused*1111

2014 Religious Landscape Study, conducted June 4-Sept. 30, 2014. Figures may not add to 100 percent, and nested figures may not add to subtotals indicated, due to rounding.
The "other Christian groups" category includes Mormons, Orthodox Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and a number of smaller Christian groups.



The Associated Press and Deanna Pan of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.