Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pew report on religion in America

The Pew Research Center has written another report on religion in America, this one from polls completed last year: America's Changing Religious Landscape. I find it fascinating, especially compared to a similar study they did just seven years ago:
The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.

To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith. But the major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. ...

Even as their numbers decline, American Christians – like the U.S. population as a whole – are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Non-Hispanic whites now account for smaller shares of evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics than they did seven years earlier, while Hispanics have grown as a share of all three religious groups. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 41% of Catholics (up from 35% in 2007), 24% of evangelical Protestants (up from 19%) and 14% of mainline Protestants (up from 9%).

This really becomes fascinating when you look into the details. But first, what about those "religiously unaffiliated"? At nearly 23% of the population, we're a larger group than Catholics (20.8%), mainline Protestants (14.7%), or any other religious group except for evangelical Protestants (25.4%).

But the vast majority of those 'nones,' as they're often called, don't describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. Instead - in this poll, at least - they subscribe to "nothing in particular."

What in the world does that even mean? "Nothing in particular"? Are these people who can't even be bothered to think about religion? Are they non-believers who can't bring themselves to admit it? Are they the vaguely 'spiritual'? Are they deists?

They're not Christian, although most were raised Christian. Obviously, you can't very well be Christian if you believe in "nothing in particular." Can they simply not take that final step to full skepticism? I really don't get it, but whatever they are, they're nearly 16% of the U.S. population now.

The percentage of atheists has nearly doubled in seven years, but it's still just 3.1% of the population. Self-described agnostics are now 4%. (Yes, I know. Those aren't contradictory labels. You can be an atheist and an agnostic, as I am. But 'atheist' is a difficult word for many people, even some nonbelievers.)

Still, note that there are more self-described atheists in America than Jews and Muslims combined. (Note: That's not even including agnostics.) There are more atheists than Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Orthodox Christians combined, too. We're still not even close to the number of "nothing in particular," though, and I really don't understand that.

Still, the trends are good. The 'unaffiliated' aren't just growing in number. They're also young and getting younger, while Christian groups are aging. 36% of young adults (age 18-29) are 'unaffiliated,' compared to only 12% of the 65+ age group. In Christian groups, it's just the reverse. The elderly are most likely to be Christian.

It's not just percentages that are changing, either. In the seven years since the previous report, the adult population in America grew by 18 million people. But the number of Christians dropped by 5 million.

I'd expect the Catholic Church, in particular, to be helped by immigration. And indeed, racial and ethnic minorities make up a whopping 41% of American Catholics today (they're increasing in other Christian groups, too). But despite that, the number of adult Catholics has dropped by 3 million, and by more than 3%, in just seven years.

(Again, the report notes that, "The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men." This isn't just a trend among white Americans - or even among young Americans, though the numbers are higher there. "Baby Boomers also have become slightly but noticeably more likely to identify as religious “nones” in recent years.")

Speaking of Catholics, here's another astonishing number: 41% of American adults who were raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic. 41%!  Incredible, isn't it? Most other Christian groups see the same trend (19.2% of U.S. adults are former Christians), with the 'nones' being just the reverse (most having been raised Christian).

Here's another positive trend:
As the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated continue to grow, they also describe themselves in increasingly secular terms. In 2007, 25% of the “nones” called themselves atheists or agnostics; 39% identified their religion as “nothing in particular” and also said that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important in their lives; and 36% identified their religion as “nothing in particular” while nevertheless saying that religion is either “very important” or “somewhat important” in their lives. The new survey finds that the atheist and agnostic share of the “nones” has grown to 31%. Those identifying as “nothing in particular” and describing religion as unimportant in their lives continue to account for 39% of all “nones.” But the share identifying as “nothing in particular” while also affirming that religion is either “very” or “somewhat” important to them has fallen to 30% of all “nones.”

The raw numbers still surprise me. How could 30% of the people who pick "nothing in particular" as their religious belief still claim that religion is important in their life? I really don't understand it. Still, as I say, the trend is very positive.

There are all sorts of interesting stuff in the details, especially when you play around with their interactive database tool. For example, despite gains among the 'nones' in every demographic category, they remain mostly white and mostly male. However, among us atheists, that is especially pronounced, with 78% being non-Hispanic white and twice as many men as women. Clearly, we need to work on that.

Here's some more fun stuff: Which group do you think is the best educated, and which the least? Well, Jehovah's Witnesses easily have the least education of any group, as 63% have no college education at all, and just 3% have a post-graduate degree.

But it's Hindus in America who have far and away the most education. 88% have at least some college, and 48% have a post-graduate degree! Admittedly, Hindus are only .7% of the population, but that's still very impressive.

Jewish adults are second. 81% have at least some college education, and 31% have a post-graduate degree. The 'unaffiliated' are sort of in the middle - better educated than most Christians, but not as much as non-Christians in America (or as much as Mormons and Orthodox Christians, either).

Of course, all of those other groups are very small percentages of the U.S population. Mormons, Orthodox Christians, and all non-Christians combined are only 8% of the population, while there are nearly three times as many of the 'nones.' It's hard to beat the averages - or trail them very much, either - with really large numbers of people.

Another way of looking at this is by educational group, and that shows the 'unaffiliated' at 21% to 25% of the population in every category. Interesting, isn't it? I guess I wouldn't have expected that. Anyway, I could browsed this stuff for hours. Heck, I already have. But I'll stop now. Feel free to check it out for yourself.

As an atheist, I have to find this report encouraging, but if anything, I'm surprised that we haven't grown even faster. Of course, I've never understood why everyone isn't an atheist. I've just never understood faith-based thinking.

And I still don't understand why atheists aren't a larger proportion of the 'nones.' I suppose I understand why some nonbelievers want to call themselves "agnostics," rather than "atheists" - well, I can accept that, at least - but why are atheists and agnostics together only about a third of the 'unaffiliated'?

That's still a significant number of adult Americans, of course. It's more than Jews, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus combined. But it's a much smaller number than it should be.

Still, when I was a kid, I didn't know any other atheists. Indeed, I didn't know anyone else who wasn't a Christian - as far as I knew, at least. And even in college, atheists were almost unheard of. Things have changed a lot since then - not enough, but we're certainly heading in the right direction.


Chimeradave said...

I guess Atheism is seen as it's own entity. It is easier to say you dont believe in anything then to join another entity.

Does the survey make a distinction between people that claim to be religious but dont go to church? People who havent been to a mass since they were 10 still claim to be Catholic.

WCG said...

That might be true, John. But the 'nones' who don't identify as atheists or agnostics are selecting "nothing in particular," not saying that they don't believe in anything.

I think it's just hard for people to accept that they're going to... end. If you're an atheist, you've accepted the fact that you're going to die and that's it. Anything else but atheism leaves the door open, if only a little bit.

No one wants to die. No one wants their loved ones to die. It's a hard thing to accept. So if you can no longer accept the primitive superstition you were raised to believe - and you're certainly not going to buy some other primitive superstition - what then?

Well, it's not surprising that you might look for some way to leave the door open, especially if you don't have to specify the way. Saying "nothing in particular" isn't saying very much, after all.

Maybe even agnostics are avoiding the flat acceptance of death. Now sure, from my point of view, atheism and agnosticism are perfectly compatible. Atheism is about belief, while agnosticism is about knowledge.

I'm an agnostic atheist. You can't know... well, anything, really - not for absolute certainty. That's not just when it comes to religion, but everything. But so what? It's still rational to believe or disbelieve based on the evidence, without requiring absolute certainty. Heck, we do that every day.

So I have to wonder if people who choose the agnostic label instead of the atheist label are still trying to leave the door open. Well, I know many agnostics would vehemently disagree with that, so who knows? I'm certainly not going to claim I know more about what other people think than they do.

I don't know what any of these people think, but only what I think. So this is entirely speculation.

And no, I'm pretty sure the survey didn't make any distinctions based on actions. It was entirely how people chose to identify themselves. If they claimed to be Catholic, they're Catholic for the purposes of this survey, even if the Pope himself would disagree with that.

Anonymous said...

It's me, Kate. Just don't have a lot of on-line social identities. I think you're right in your reply to John. I've met a couple of agnostics who admit they leave the door open in case it might have an effect on their afterlife! That is, by not denying God, maybe he'll be nicer to them - if he exists.

WCG said...

Thanks, Kate.

You know, I never read many comics when I was a kid, but I did read some, and I used to imagine being a superhero. Of course, I knew that was never going to happen. I knew that superheros were ridiculous make-believe.

On the other hand, even knowing that, I could still dream about it, and it was always tempting to imagine. I mean, maybe,... somehow?

So I can understand that wish to leave the door open. Of course, I'm not a kid anymore. I no longer even think about being a superhero. (Indeed, I don't get the fascination for superhero movies, even.)

But it's hard to imagine being dead. It's hard to imagine just... not existing, even though I didn't exist for billions and billions of years. So I can understand a desire to leave the door open, though not the idea that a god is going to make an exception just because you've left that door open a crack.

Of course, I can't imagine a god who'd punish people for not believing he existed, anyway - especially when it would be so easy to demonstrate his existence, if he really cared about something so ridiculous.

But I do understand the desire not to close the door completely on your own hopes and dreams. As long as you're an agnostic or, better yet, a "nothing in particular," you can still hope, somehow, that you're wrong, that you can still be that superhero, someday.