Americans’ religious beliefs in transformation: new research

How is religious belief changing, and what does this mean for the future?

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has published new findings about American religious behavior, and the results are fascinating.  “Religion and Congregations in a Time of Social and Political Upheaval” offers a snapshot of a society in transformation. (I’ve previously written about their 2017 research, which was excellent.)

In this post I’ll identify what I thought of as the most important or interesting details of the report.  One caveat: I’m not a religion scholar, but am looking at the topic as a futurist.

tl;dr – religious belief continues to decline in many registers, although things vary by race and faith.

Continued shift away from religious affiliation While the majority of Americans identify as Christians, their overall numbers are declining.  The number of people who do not claim any religious affiliation keeps rising.  Among white Americans, the unaffiliated now constitute a bit more than one quarter of the population.

religious beliefs by race and denomination 2006-2022 PRRI-May-2023

One aspect of religious affiliation involves physically attending religious services.  Attendance has declined significantly across most religions over the past decade:

religious attendance 2013-2022 PRRI-May-2023

Another way of looking at religious belief is how often people change affiliations in the course of their lifetimes.  Such switching is on the rise: “In 2022, about one in four Americans (24%) say they were previously a follower or practitioner of a different religious tradition or denomination than the one they belong to now, up from 16% in 2021.”

PRRI breaks down switching faiths by original faith:

People who are currently members of other non-Christian religions (38%) or religiously unaffiliated (37%) are the most likely to say that they were previously a follower or practitioner of a different religious tradition, followed by about one in four other Protestants of color (28%), white evangelical Protestants (25%), and Hispanic Protestants (24%). In addition, 22% each of other Christians, white mainline/non-evangelical Protestants, and Latter-day Saints also say they were previously a practitioner or follower of a different religious tradition or denomination.

In contrast, “Jewish Americans (15%), Black Protestants (15%), Hispanic Catholics (11%) and white Catholics (10%) are the least likely to say they were previously a follower or practitioner of a different religious tradition.”

From a different angle, the study identifies the religions losing the largest numbers of believers:

Among Americans who left a religious tradition, 37% say they were formerly Catholic, 24% were non-evangelical Christian or Protestant, 17% belonged to another Christian tradition, 13% were evangelical Christians, and 5% were members of non-Christian religions.

Why do people leave or switch?  The reasons are various:

[A] majority of those who changed (56%) say they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings. Another 30% indicate they were turned off by the religion’s negative teachings about or treatment of LGBTQ people, 29% say their family was never that religious growing up, 27% say they were disillusioned by scandals involving leaders in their former religion, 18% point to a traumatic event in their lives, and 17% say their church became too focused on politics.

The importance of religion seems to be declining The PRRI team asked what respondents thought of the statement that “religion is the most important thing in their lives.”  It’s an interesting way of getting at a sense of value, and that value here is declining – not sharply, but clearly, except for white Catholics and “other Christians”:

religion is the most important thing in my life 2013 vs 2022 PRRI-May-2023

In contrast to these signs of weakening religious institutions, those who continue to believe or affiliate seem to be steady, as few current believers are considering an exit:

Only 16% of Americans say they are thinking about leaving their current religious tradition or denomination. About two in ten Latter-day Saints (24%), other Protestants of color (20%), white Catholics (20%), white mainline/non-evangelical Protestants (18%), and other Christians (17%) say they are thinking about leaving their religious tradition, compared with 15% of white evangelical Protestants, 14% of Hispanic Protestants, 13% of Hispanic Catholics, 11% of Black Protestants, and 10% of both Jewish Americans and members of other non-Christian religions.

Religious institutions tend to not be racially diverse Most churches have communities that consist of one race.  “[T]he vast majority of churchgoers report that their congregations are mostly monoracial.”

At least three-quarters of white Christians say that their churches are mostly white, including 80% of white mainline/non-evangelical Protestants, 77% of white Catholics, and 75% of white evangelical Protestants.”

Overall, I find these results fascinating and useful.  As always with good surveys, I wish for more data and more cuts through it.  Gender, geography, age, and educational attainment come to my mind.

So what can we deduce from this data, and how might it impact higher education?

Whenever futurists see a series of datapoints in a timeline we are tempted to project them forwards.  So a first extrapolation would obviously forecast a continued religious affiliation decline.  Yet we also know that the historical record rarely shows such straight line arcs, and I have two thoughts on such complications here.  First, I was struck by the supermajorities of believers who did not express a desire to exit or switch. It may be that those not too committed to each faith have now left, and what remains are the firm believers.  PRRI finds those remainers tend to also be more optimistic about the future of their respective institutions. In which case we might expect the declines to level off.

Second, and this is more speculative, I’m constantly looking for signs of 21st century new religious movements (NRMs) to appear, as well as for major reformations and schisms to current institutions.  For example, I expect the climate crisis to elicit new sects and belief patterns.  Depending on what happens with artificial intelligence, we could see religious changes in response.  Moreover, nearly every historical religion appeared as a contemporary black swan, so we should be ready for a new faith to appear out of the blue.

When it comes to academia, I’ve previously identified some impacts:

  1. Enrollment and reputation challenges for religiously-affiliated private colleges and universities.
  2. Potential challenges for religious studies as an academic discipline, notably in terms of student interest, and perhaps cultural support for research.
  3. On the intersection of race and religion, we seem – broadly – to be seeing belief dwindle among white Americans, but not so much among other populations.  Religious institutions primarily enrolling people of color might endure, while primarily white campuses dwindle.

Are you seeing signs of these religious trends in your academic environment?

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One Response to Americans’ religious beliefs in transformation: new research

  1. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward — Retrospection at the End of Another Academic Year | Rob Reynolds

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