Changing America: important new research on religious belief

How American society is changing is a vital topic for anyone thinking about education to consider.  I’ve written about demographics, politics, technology, and macroeconomics, but have not yet addressed an important force: religious belief.  Fortunately, a new study just appeared with fascinating insights into American religions now and to come.

First, I’ll share what I found most important and useful.  Next, I’ll speak to the educational implications.

To create the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) report, “America’s Changing Religious Identity”, Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones surveyed more than 101,000 people about their beliefs and identities by phone (a little more than half by cell phone), organizing the study based on a PRRI ontology of religions.  Their headline finding is dramatic: “The American religious landscape has undergone dramatic changes in the last decade and is more diverse today than at any time since modern sociological measurements began.”

Here’s a good graphic illustrating that diversity:

religions in 2016

(Note the biggest slice of that pie isn’t religiously affiliated.)

White Christianity continues to decline White Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants all saw their numbers following a recent downward path.

In 1976… a majority (55%) of Americans were white Protestants…As recently as 1996, white Christians still made up nearly two-thirds (65%) of the public. By 2006, that number dropped to 54%, but white Christians still constituted a majority.8 But over the last decade, the proportion of white Christians in the U.S. has slipped below majority. Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian—and only 30% as white and Protestant.

That’s a major, major transformation.  And it plays out geographically:

Diminishing white Christian presence_PRRI

One key aspect of this is the rising proportion of Christians who aren’t white – most notably, Latinos.

Not being religious is growing The report put together avowed atheists, people who dub themselves “secular”, and a few others to find a historically unusual situation: “No religious group is larger than those who are unaffiliated from religion. Nearly one in four (24%) Americans are now religiously unaffiliated.”  And those numbers are growing dramatically: “Since the early 1990s, this group has roughly tripled in size.”

religiously unaffiliated 1976-20167

The authors admit that unbelief (or unaffiliation?) is often linked to youth, but note that this population is actually getting older:

Although unaffiliated Americans tend to be younger than religiously affiliated Americans on average, the group collectively is older today than it was a generation ago. Today, about one-third (34%) of unaffiliated Americans are under the age of 30, while nearly three in ten (29%) are at least 50 years old. In the 1970s, half (50%) of all unaffiliated Americans were under 30 years old, and only 17% were age 50 or older.

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The median age of someone who was unaffiliated during that decade was also seven years younger than it is today: 29 vs. 36, respectively.

If this trend rises, the media spats over Richard Dawkins et al might just be the opening skirmishes of a broader cultural war.

No religion has anywhere near Christianity’s numbers Setting aside the nonaffiliated for the moment, “[n]on-Christian religious groups constitute less than one in ten Americans. Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are each roughly one percent of the population. Jewish Americans account for two percent of the public… 1.9% of the public identifies as Mormon”  So, what, around 7-8% total?  That’s a very small population, and a very diverse one to boot.

Party politics and religion The stereotype of Republicans being the home for religious conservativism continues to be true, while “White Christians have become a minority in the Democratic Party”:

Fewer than one in three (29%) Democrats today are white Christian, compared to half (50%) one decade earlier. Only 14% of young Democrats (age 18 to 29) identify as white Christian. Forty percent identify as religiously unaffiliated…

More than one-third (35%) of all Republicans identify as white evangelical Protestant, a proportion that has remained roughly stable over the past decade. Roughly three-quarters (73%) of Republicans belong to a white Christian religious group.

The demographics of age White Christians are aging, while “America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian.”  “No religious group has older members than white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics.

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” The age breakdown is quite dramatic, pointing to strong generational differences:

religion by generation_PRRI


At least one-third of Muslims (42%), Hindus (36%), and Buddhists (35%) are under the age of 30. Roughly one-third (34%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans are also under 30. In contrast, white Christian groups are aging. Slightly more than one in ten white Catholics (11%), white evangelical Protestants (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.

Geography There is now a group of states where the religiously unaffiliated (secular, mostly, but also atheists and those who’d rather not say) are the largest population, if nowhere a majority.  “These states tend to be more concentrated in the Western U.S., although they include a couple of New England states, as well.”  And Catholicism has moved south(west):  “The Northeast is no longer the epicenter of American Catholicism… Immigration from predominantly Catholic countries in Latin America means new Catholic populations are settling in the Southwest.”

Meanwhile, no surprise in the Bible Belt:

[i]n 13 states, no religious group comprises a larger share of residents than white evangelical Protestants. Unsurprisingly, most of these states can be found in the South…The least religiously diverse states in the U.S. are all located in the South.

Religions by state

Click to embiggen.

Sexuality People with non-normative sexuality are much more likely to not affiliate with a religion than those in the sexual mainstream.  ” Nearly half (46%) of Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) are religiously unaffiliated. This is roughly twice the number of Americans overall (24%) who are religiously unaffiliated.

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Note, again, the role of age: “There are stark generational differences among LGBT Americans in their religious identity. A majority (56%) of LGBT young adults (age 18 to 29) are religiously unaffiliated, compared to one-quarter (25%) of LGBT seniors (age 65 or older).”

Gender Generally women are more likely than men to be believers, although not by much, and with important variations:

religious affiliation by gender

What does this mean for education?

To begin with, the PRRI survey finds enormous variation in religious affiliation by education.  Consider:

religion and education

Race further inflects this connection:

Nonwhite Christian religious groups have considerably lower levels of education. A majority of black Protestants (52%), Hispanic Protestants (65%), and Hispanic Catholics (70%) report having a high school education or less. Fewer than one-quarter of black Protestants (22%), Hispanic Protestants (14%), and Hispanic Catholics (12%) have a college degree.

Second, consider the number of American colleges and universities with religious identities.  These changing patterns of belief powerfully shape their likely students, faculty members, and staff.

Third, the rise of nonbelief has implications for student enrollment in religious institutions, as well as for student life and curriculum.  For example, requiring a class on religion may mean something very different in 2020 than in 1980.

Fourth, the generational divide yawns even wider.  I keep hammering this point, and it’s often contested (especially by people who define themselves as personal exceptions), but the general trends are clear.  On the religious score, listen to one of the study’s authors:

Daniel Cox, PRRI’s director of research, said senior citizens generally have cohorts who look a lot like them — “nominally white Protestant, and that has been normal throughout their lives.” But the under-30 crowd tends to rub elbows with a more diverse group — including the religiously unaffiliated and people of different races and religions.

“The young are much less likely to believe this is a ‘Christian nation’ or to give preference to Christian identity,” he said. “Young people and seniors are basically inhabiting different religious worlds.” (emphases added)

Think about what this can mean now at for teaching, student recruitment, student workers, and more at institutions serving traditional-age undergraduates.  Then think how this will impact campuses a decade hence when those students start becoming staff and faculty members.

Fifth, as we look towards a racially more diverse America, we have to pay careful attention to how religion intersects with race.

Taken together, imagine what American belief patterns might look like in 20 years.  Could we see half the country religiously unaffiliated, and the majority of many Christian sects being nonwhite?

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 Will states become more or less religiously complex?

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7 Responses to Changing America: important new research on religious belief

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    without geographic distribution, the chart is not as useful as it should be — and sometimes somewhat misleading

  2. Markus says:

    In Finland’s biggest newspaper (Helsingin Sanomat) wrote statement based on that PRRI article and statistics (

    Finnish newspaper wrote:
    The unaffiliated have first time become the most common belief in USA

    I think this was very misleading text from the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.
    There are still more than 40% protestants and over 60% (all) christians in USA.

    So from my opinion the PRRI picture/statistics only told that there were more unaffiliated people than White christian evangelical protestants. Not that the unaffiliated are the most common belief in USA.

    I would really much appriciate if you could comment also what is your opinion to this Finnish newspaper’s statement, thanks 🙂

    • That’s a slippery headline, Markus. Because it is true, sort of. No other individual sect is that large – i.e., there are more nonaffiliated people than Baptists or Catholics.
      But “unaffiliated” is not a sect or belief. It is a multiplicity of positions and non-beliefs. It doesn’t mean “atheist.”
      Meanwhile, as I said up above, “Christian” remains – by far – the largest single category of religious affiliation in the US.

  3. Pingback: Americans’ Changing Religious Beliefs: New Research –

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