The Most Surprising Statistic in Pew’s Massive Study About Americans’ Religious Beliefs

A new report from the Pew Research Center showing a substantial decline in the proportion of self-identified American Christians and a modest rise in atheist and agnostic citizens has yielded a wide array of reactions from both believers and nonbelievers, alike. 

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Dr. Jessica Martinez, a research associate at the Pew Research Center who worked on the new reported titled, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” said that her team was most surprised to see the growth of the unaffiliated cohort, a group that includes atheists, agnostics and individuals who do not identify with a specific faith.

“We’ve known for a while from our data that the share of Americans that say they’re religiously unaffiliated has been growing, but it was really impressive to see the course of that growth,” Martinez told TheBlaze on Wednesday.

Martinez said that one of the underlying factors surrounding the decrease in the proportion of Christian adherents and the stark uptick in the unaffiliated — who rose from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent between 2007 and 2014 — is “generational replacement.”

Millennials who are between the ages of 18 and 33 are significantly less likely to embrace religious sentiment, with around 35 percent counting themselves as unaffiliated; thus, there’s a demographic replacement underway in which the younger, less faithful are replacing the older, more religious citizenry.

“This generation is much more religiously unaffiliated than older generations,” Martinez explained. “As the younger are replacing older, it’s shifting the landscape in this way.”

Considering the current dynamic, some critics might wonder what the future will hold for religious adherence in America. While Martinez believe that it’s difficult to predict how proportions will shift, she said that the current generational replacement pattern is likely to continue.

“When we look by generation at people over time — older cohorts and what their levels of affiliation were, it’s not necessarily the case that people have been more likely to be religiously affiliated over time,” she said, noting that Millennials are also less religious that past generations were during the same period in their lives.

That said, Martinez also noted that the shifts in the numbers may not necessarily mean that people are abandoning deep religious convictions.

In the past, there’s been a great deal of discussion about people who are known as “cultural Christians” — individuals who nominally identify with the faith, but who are not necessarily practicing or fully embracing the theology. When these people officially drop the sectarian label, it is viewed quite differently from people who abandon the faith in the midst of being both devoted and practicing.

“People are just changing how they identify themselves,” Martinez said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean something has changed profoundly in their religious beliefs or practices.”

She noted that a 2012 report that Pew produced about the unaffiliated cohort found that much of the growth unfolding within the group was among people who seldom or never attended religious services, showcasing a possible lack of allegiance to the faith.

Changing U.S. Religious Landscape
Either way, the share of atheists and agnostics within the unaffiliated group has grown over time. Consider that 1.6 percent of the population called itself “atheist” in 2007, though that proportion now stands at 3.1 percent. Likewise, 2.4 percent considered themselves agnostic; that proportion is now at 4.0 percent, meaning that atheists and agnostics account for 7.1 percent of the population, up from 5 percent in 2007.

But the proportions become even more intriguing when one dives deeper to compare the subgroups.

“Atheists and agnostics have increased from 25 percent to 31 percent [of the overall unaffiliated cohort],” Martinez said. “As a group, the unaffiliated are both growing and describing themselves in increasingly secular terms.”

Martinez said that future reports will examine other measures that were not included in the current study, including the finer details surrounding beliefs and practices.

Read more about Pew’s study here.

Front page image via Shutterstock.com.