One of the big social-cultural trends I’ve been tracking is the changing nature of American religious belief. Specifically, I’ve been watching for signs of a long-promised secularization, as we’ve seen in many other developed nations.
And there are now some early signals. (For examples, see my posts about this 2019 Gallup poll or this 2017 PRRI study) What this seems to look like is a decline in the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian, and a rise in those defining their belief (or nonbelief) under the header of “none of the above.” It may be an example of a U-Bend or bloom-bust-boom trend.
To the point: the Pew Research Center has published a new survey, and the results are fascinating for anyone looking at the future of American society.
tl;dr version – Christian affiliation is sliding down across denominations, while religious unaffiliation keeps rising:
This is also happening across the board, by gender, race, region, and even education:
We can identify some differences in the above, of course. Republicans are less likely to exit Christianity than Democrats, for example, and the northeast is more Godless than the west. The biggest difference, though, is by age. Younger folks are less likely to be Christian than their elders.
Note that just under one half of millennials call themselves Christian. And as many are nonaffiliated or follow non-Christian religions. That represents a huge shift.
I was fascinated by many other aspects of this study. For example, while membership in individual non-Christian faiths remains tiny as a part of the American whole, the total numbers of such adherents is rising:
Or how the majority of the American Latinx population is non-Catholic, for the first time ever:
Many, many forces go into this religious trend. Trying to understand it, we could consider:
- the continued growth of the internet, giving people access to non-dominant religious thinking;
- the impact of chronic clerical sex abuse scandals, especially in the Catholic world;
- the gap between rising American cultural and political beliefs (pro-gay marriage, women’s rights, etc) and widely seen conservative religious beliefs;
- anxiety about religious violence following 9-11;
- Americans experiencing greater interactions with more secular societies, thanks to digital technologies;
- populations moving from a more religious rural world to a less so urban sector.
But this blog is about the future of education, so let’s think about what our trend means for it. (I shared some thoughts about the trend last summer.)
To begin with, religious colleges and universities may face challenges winning students from an increasingly unaffiliated population. Think of Christian schools serving traditional-age populations confronting that 1/2 non-Christian millennial/Z population. Along similar lines, religious studies as an academic field may face a harder time attracting students and an audience for its scholarship.
On a different level, opposition to higher ed might take on a more religious cast. There’s certainly the long-standing tradition of people going to college and losing their faith. We could see anti-academics build on this.
Further, campuses might experience cultural tensions between generations along lines of belief. We could imagine issues around religious texts in classrooms, religious groups on campus, divides between staff or faculty in the same department but separated by years and belief.
I will conclude with two caveats. First, while this is a lot of data and represents a significant chunk of time, the trends could stall out. There’s a lot of evidence showing people becoming more religious as they age, so we could well see a wave of Millennial re-affiliation, possibly followed by more Gen Z churching. Perhaps the Eat/Prey/Profit world will spawn increased participation in institutional religions.
Second, these are very long term curves. They are generational and multi-generational in span. So the results might not be significant for years to come. And there’s plenty of room for things to develop that could alter the trend’s shape. Think of the impact of an electrifying religious leader, or, conversely, of new church scandals. Scientific developments could spark more or less religious participation. And the decline in affiliation within the American northeast is matched by the decline in that region’s youth population.
Keep an eye on this one.