Percentage Of Americans Professing “No Religion” On The Rise

The number of Americans professing no religious affiliation is on the rise. This will have some interesting cultural and political implications.

A new study reveals some interesting trends regarding American’s religious beliefs and practices:

It’s relatively well-known that the portion of the U.S. population with no religious affiliation has been steadily increasing recently. And for those paying attention to research, it’s also been obvious for a while that conservative evangelicals were beginning to lose ”market share” after years of mocking their mainline Protestant cousins of “dying” because of insufficiently rigorous theology and moral strictures.

But now comes a new set of data from years of polling by ABC News and the Washington Post that puts these trends together in a way that might bust some old preconceptions. Between 2003 and 2017, the percentage of adult Americans professing “no religion” grew from 12 percent to 21 percent. And at the same time, the portion of the population made up by white evangelicals dropped from 21 percent to 13 percent. Indeed, the white evangelical population dropped even faster than the white non-evangelical population (which shrank from 17 percent to 11 percent), and the two groups are converging in size.

Among younger Americans, the trends are even starker. In 2003, only 19 percent of adults under 30 professed “no religion.” That percent rose to 35 percent in 2017. That’s compared to only 22 percent who identify with any sort of Protestantism.

When you consider the political power of the different types of believer and unbelievers, these numbers are hard to credit. Recently four members of the U.S. House of Representatives formed a “Freethought Caucus,” dedicated, among other things, to defense of “atheists, agnostics, humanists, seekers, religious and nonreligious persons” against discrimination. Yet those white conservative evangelicals who are now significantly outnumbered by the “nonreligious” have one of the two major political parties catering to them relentlessly; they are also uniformly thought to represent the political “base” for the president of the United States.

More from ABC News:

The nation’s religious makeup has shifted dramatically in the past 15 years, with a sharp drop in the number of Americans who say they’re members of a Protestant denomination – still the nation’s most prevalent religious group – and a rise in the number who profess no religion.

On average last year, 36 percent of Americans in ABC News/Washington Post polls identified themselves as members of a Protestant faith, extending a gradual trend down from 50 percent in 2003. That includes an 8-point drop in the number of evangelical white Protestants, an important political group.

Reflecting the change among Protestants, the share of Christians overall has declined from 83 percent of the adult population in 2003 to 72 percent on average last year. In the same time, the number of Americans who say they have no religion has nearly doubled, to 21 percent.

Catholic self-identification (22 percent) has held steady during this time. The share of adults who identify with another form of Christianity – including Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons and Greek or Russian Orthodox, for example – has risen modestly, from 11 to 14 percent.

This analysis, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, is based on a very large dataset – 174,485 random-sample telephone interviews in ABC News and ABC News/Washington Post polls conducted from 2003 to 2017. We focus mainly on 2003 and 2017 data, including 7,185 and 5,017 interviews, respectively.

Among all Protestants, 56 percent currently say they’re evangelical or born-again; that has held essentially steady since 2003, with virtually equal declines in the number who say they’re either evangelical or non-evangelical Protestants, down 7 and 6 points, respectively.

Evangelical white Protestants are of particular interest in political terms, since they’re a core group within the Republican coalition; 80 percent supported Donald Trump in 2016. Evangelical white Protestants’ share of the total adult population has gone from 21 percent in 2003 to 13 percent last year. Non-evangelical white Protestants have gone from 17 to 11 percent.

Part of the decline in evangelical white Protestants reflects the fact that the change in Protestant self-identification overall has occurred disproportionately among whites. Thirty-nine percent of whites now identify themselves as members of a Protestant denomination, down 13 points since 2003. That compares with an 8-point decline among Hispanics (from 22 to 14 percent) and just 3 points among blacks (from 64 to 61 percent). An additional factor is the shrinking white non-Hispanic population, from 69 percent of all Americans in 2000 to an estimated 61 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

These two charts show how the numbers have changed among all religions and among Protestants and those professing “no religion”

 

In some sense, of course, this trend is merely a mirror of something that has been happening in other parts of the western world for decades now. In Europe, for example, Church attendance and professed religious belief has been on the decline for decades now even in predominantly and strongly Catholic nations such as Italy and France. The same has been true in nations were Protestant churches predominate such as Germany, the nations of Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom. For a long time, though, the United States has been something of an outlier among western nations. Whether measured by self-professed belief in a supreme being of some kind or regular church attendance, the United States is, and remains, unique among First World nations in that higher percentages of the population are more fervently religious than their contemporaries in other western nations. In many respects, the reasons for this difference can be found in the circumstances surrounding America’s founding, including the fact that many of the original immigrants to the United States came here for explicitly religious reasons. As a result, religion has been intertwined with American culture in ways that aren’t necessarily true of many nations in Europe.

Those expressing no religious affiliation do definitely fall within some rather unsurprising demographic groups:

As the share of Protestants has declined, the number of adults expressing no religious affiliation has risen from 12 percent in 2003 to 21 percent of all adults in 2017. That includes 3 percent who say they’re atheists, 3 percent agnostic and 15 percent who say they have no religion. The proportions were similar 15 years ago.

The largest shifts during this 15-year period include 16-point increases among young adults (age 18 to 29) and political liberals. The smallest changes have occurred among Republicans, conservatives and blacks (+4 points in each group) as well as older Americans, +5 points.

Having no religious affiliation is most prevalent among 18- to 29-year-olds, at 35 percent, vs. 13 percent among those age 50 and older. It’s also higher among men than women (25 vs. 17 percent), among college graduates vs. those without a degree (25 vs. 20 percent), and among whites and Hispanics than among blacks (22 and 20 percent vs. 15 percent).

It differs among political and ideological groups as well. Thirty-five percent of liberals report no religious affiliation, compared with 21 percent of moderates and 12 percent of conservatives. Twenty-three and 25 percent of Democrats and independents, respectively, don’t report a religion, dropping to 10 percent of Republicans. Indeed the non-religious are something of a political counterpoint to evangelical white Protestants; 67 percent of those with no religious affiliation supported Hillary Clinton in 2016.

There are also some interesting political divisions:

Religious groups differ dramatically in their politics. Evangelical white Protestants, as noted, are a core GOP group; 48 percent identify themselves as Republicans, 31 percent as political independents and just 14 percent as Democrats. Similarly, 53 percent of Mormons are Republicans, 34 percent independents and 9 percent Democrats.

Across the political spectrum, 57 percent of Muslims and 48 percent of Jews say they’re Democrats; just 5 and 16 percent, respectively, are Republicans.

Ideological differences are similar. Conservatives account for six in 10 Mormons and nearly as many evangelical white Protestants, compared with 38 percent of white Catholics, a third of non-evangelical Protestants and just 16 percent of Jews. Roughly four in 10 Jews, Muslims and non-religious adults alike are liberals; it’s half that, or lower, in other groups.

The cultural and political implications of all of this should be rather obvious. Assuming that these trends continue, then the number of people who define themselves as having “no religion” will increase, and this will, in turn, lead to changes in politics and culture that in some sense are already manifesting themselves. The declining influence of organized religion, for example, has most likely played a large role in the rapid increases we’ve seen in the acceptance of homosexuality, marriage equality, and the rights of transgender Americans. Additionally, polling has shown that, with the exception of the white Evangelical Protestants that dominate the Republican Party, there is increasing support for the separation of church and state and a rather large antipathy toward government policies that appear to be biased in favor of particular religions or religious faith in general. This is likely to become especially true among younger voters, suggesting that political and cultural changes are likely to become more prevalent in the political sphere as these younger Americans become a larger voice in American politics.

This is not to say that the United States is about to become a non-religious culture at any point in the near future, of course. As the charts above show, people who identify with a particular faith are likely to remain a majority of Americans for some time to come. Additionally, it’s important to note that those professing “no religion” aren’t necessarily atheist or agnostic. This ABC poll, as well as other polling, has shown that a significant portion of this group includes people who continue to say that they ascribe to some sort of faith while those who say definitively atheist or agnostic remain a decided minority of the population. Many people who place themselves in the “no religion” category instead seem to fall within a group that has spiritual beliefs of some time, but simply do not identify as a member of any particular faith and don’t consider church attendance to be an important factor in their lives. Notwithstanding that, it does seem clear that there is a correlation between the “no religion” crowd and an adherence toward political and cultural views that are more accepting of others and less judgmental. To that extent, I suppose, one can only hope that the trend continues.

 

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture, Public Opinion Polls, Religion
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    Totally off topic, but I wanted to link to Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice who’s posted several photos from Ozark Hillbilly.

    ReplyReply



    4



    3
  2. Mister Bluster says:

    Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.
    Lenny Bruce 1925-1966 RIP

    ReplyReply



    8



    0
  3. Lynn says:

    It doesn’t mention Muslims specifically, but they’re about 1% of the population.

    What makes them so scary? Personally, I’m a lot more concerned about the self-proclaimed Christians.

    ReplyReply



    13



    1
  4. Mister Bluster says:

    Must be a particularly crotchety commenter to “Thumbs Down” pics of birds and flowers
    on Mothers Day!
    Might want to call Dial-A-Prayer…

    ReplyReply



    7



    0
  5. CSK says:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but, having been raised in a totally secular family, I have no personal understanding of the power religion wields in people’s lives. I learned from my father’s example that you were supposed to be an ethical person not because the bogeyman would get you after you died–but because it was the right thing to do. I think that if you are not brought up to believe in God, you find it difficult to believe that there is one, and, in adulthood, you find it puzzling to encounter educated, worldly, intelligent adults who still purport to believe. I do, of course, understand that there are professional, social, financial, political, and communal reasons for non-believers to affiliate with a belief system.

    ReplyReply



    17



    0
  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    This ABC poll, as well as other polling, has shown that a significant portion of this group includes people who continue to say that they ascribe to some sort of faith while those who say definitively atheist or agnostic remain a decided minority of the population.

    Indeed, there’s been several studies showing that people who self-identify as “non-religious” are MORE likely to hold paranormal beliefs than the general populace, so the decline in religious belief in the US isn’t due to an increase in materialist or rationalist views of the world.

    ReplyReply



    2



    0
  7. gVOR08 says:

    As a great philosopher once said,

    Imagine there’s no heaven
    It’s easy if you try
    No hell below us
    Above us only sky
    Imagine all the people living for today

    ReplyReply



    9



    1
  8. Kylopod says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I remember a poll from a couple of decades ago indicating that in Scandinavian countries, belief in afterlife was higher than belief in God.

    ReplyReply



    1



    0
  9. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:

    Valhalla minus Odin?

    ReplyReply



    3



    0
  10. grumpy realist says:

    @CSK: It’s the beer quaffing. Attracts them every time.

    ReplyReply



    1



    0
  11. Modulo Myself says:

    My pet theory is that monotheism died some time ago. Intellectuals have been able to make good cases for teleology as a philosophy, but in the real world, God as structure and cause is a joke. That basically leaves humans just speculating in their heads, all of which might lead to Gods but certainly not the God of Aquinas or strict ritual nonsense. Evangelical Christianity is basically a cult, and the crazies appalled by sex are incoherent. So what’s coming might be interesting, or it might be Evangelical Christians, but far worse.

    ReplyReply



    5



    1
  12. Mister Bluster says:

    We are as gods and might as well get good at it.
    Stewart Brand

    ReplyReply



    2



    1
  13. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Those of us that are “no religion”, and are OK with the concept that there is no god cannot openly state this in most situations. We become ostracized.

    With Christians being 75%, the acceptance of basing life on an imaginary deity that somehow can be swayed by having words muttered silently… I can’t even.

    ReplyReply



    4



    1
  14. CSK says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Move to New Hampshire. Only 20% of the population identifies as “very religious.”

    ReplyReply



    2



    0
  15. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    With Christians being 75%, the acceptance of basing life on an imaginary deity that somehow can be swayed by having words muttered silently… I can’t even.

    That was always my favorite conundrum to throw at religionists.

    Let me get this straight – there is some all knowing being up in the sky, who already knows everything that has happened / will ever happen over the entire span of history, but he/she is going to change his/her mind with regard to what he/she has already decided is going to happen just because you asked him/her nicely?

    The entire premise is contradictory (and blatantly self-serving). The fundamental premise of these religions is that their sky fairy is infallible. Perfect in every way. Never makes mistakes. It must, then, follow that the initial plan he/she had for the universe (and this plan is another fundamental tenet of these religions) is also infallibly perfect.

    That only leaves two possible outcomes: either he/she has already decided in perfect fashion what is going to happen, and because those decisions are perfect, they won’t be changed (rendering prayer pointless) or he/she DOES change the outcome based on prayer (and by association, must unavoidably have made a mistake with regard to the originally predecided outcome).

    Short version: either prayer is meaningless, or their god isn’t infallible. It has to be one or the other based on their own rules.

    That argument tended to make them angry … 🙂

    I think Anne Lamott said it best:

    You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.

    Mmhmm … Indeed …

    ReplyReply



    6



    0
  16. Mister Bluster says:

    …the acceptance of basing life on an imaginary deity that somehow can be swayed by having words muttered silently…

    You Cannot Petition the Lord With Prayer

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  17. rachel says:

    “…it’s also been obvious for a while that conservative evangelicals were beginning to lose–”

    My brain finished that with “their sh1t” before my eyes moved on to the rest of the post. That tells you what my brain thinks of them when I’m not paying attention.

    ReplyReply



    1



    0
  18. “As a result, religion has been intertwined with American culture in ways that aren’t necessarily true of many nations in Europe.”

    I suspect the problem of the religion is Europe is not of not being strongly intertwined with culture, but the opposite – to church in Europe was historically too much connected to the society as a whole and with the state; this mean that, in Europe, ever political, social or cultural upheaval (from the Liberal Revolutions of the 19th Century to the cultural changes of the Sixties) was, almost by default, a revolt against the Church, creating an anticlerical tradition that perhaps don’t make much sense in the States.

    ReplyReply



    2



    0
  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: Thanx, I think. 😉

    @Mister Bluster: It’s the unabashed hatred of all things Ozark and Hillbilly that I am so proud to inspire.

    ReplyReply



    2



    0
  20. gVOR08 says:

    @Miguel Madeira: True. Instead of establishing a state church, we did what we do best, we turned religion into a business.

    ReplyReply



    4



    0
  21. JohnMcC says:

    @gVOR08: Very good!

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  22. MarkedMan says:

    @Miguel Madeira:

    I suspect the problem of the religion is Europe is not of not being strongly intertwined with culture, but the opposite – to church in Europe was historically too much connected to the society as a whole and with the state

    I think you are exactly right. In most European countries the state pays for the upkeep of churches and in some cases pays, directly or indirectly, the salaries of the ministers, rabbis etc. So parishioners have no economic stake in the institution. My wife’s family was heavily involved in the building and outfitting of their community church, as were many, many of the parishioners. Board meetings, planning sessions, fund drives. All of these things required involvement and commitment on the part of the attendees. I suspect that Europe would be a more religious place if the actual church goers worked to raise funds for the new furnace.

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  23. Leonard says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Have you ever even spoken to a religious person?

    ReplyReply



    1



    3
  24. Mister Bluster says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:..unabashed hatred…
    Now I see three Thumbs Down.
    I wonder if they are kin to the mother rapers sitting on the bench at the Selective Service Office
    with Arlo Guthrie?

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  25. Tyrell says:

    This is the age of the independent church. The mainline denominations are in decline. People want a church that focuses on the mission and is not weighed down by a large, top down bureaucratic organization. A lot of the independent churches do not keep or report numbers.
    This is a new reformation.

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  26. SKI says:

    @Modulo Myself: I think you are confusing evangelical conception of monotheism with the sum totality of what monotheism can be/is.

    That said, Belief in G-d != Being Religious – and this is true from both perspectives. I am relatively religious but am somewhat ambivalent on the actual existence or relevance of G-d.

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  27. gVOR)* says:

    @HarvardLaw92: I don’t use it in argument, I avoid the subject, but the bit that got me was the insistence that it was important that I went to church regularly to worship. God created my planet, with billions of people, and the entire universe with, as Sagan used to say, billions and billions of stars. He’s omnipotent and omniscient. And he’s going to be offended if little old me doesn’t sing his praise every week?

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  28. gVOR08 says:

    @gVOR)*: I miss the Preview function.

    ReplyReply



    1



    0
  29. Mister Bluster says:

    @gVOR08:..I miss the Preview function.

    We all do.

    ReplyReply



    2



    0
  30. Leonard says:

    @gVOR)*: If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, He created you deliberately. He doesn’t see you as “little old me”, but as the person he created to occupy this place and time out of all possibilities.

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  31. dennis says:

    @Leonard:

    Leonard, it’s okay to put away those childish things. It’s over, man; let it go.

    ReplyReply



    1



    0
  32. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Leonard:

    Yes, which is why I avoid doing so now.

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  33. Leonard says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Why’d you stop? You make it sound like you were so good at it. You asked questions that no one had ever thought of in 2000 years, and drove Christians crazy. You’re like a rapper bragging about how tough he was before he moved to the suburbs. I’m sure it’s all true.

    ReplyReply



    0



    1
  34. SKI says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Speaking of overly simplistic…

    The reality is most people, religious or not, aren’t deep thinkers and cling to simplistic models that aren’t accurate depictions of reality. No religious individual who has actually studied should have gotten angry at your questions nor are they particularly new or insightful or even remotely challenging. In fact, that whole discussion/thought process is part and parcel of religious texts since before the Story of Job.

    There are a lot of anti-Trump arguments that are just stupid, factually wrong and inane. That doesn’t mean that Trump is in any way good. Don’t confuse human idiocy with the validity or accuracy of what they are being idiots about.

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  35. SKI says:

    @gVOR)*: Better perspective – it isn’t important for G-d’s benefit that you attend regular services but for your own. The act of being grateful and of being connected to a community are good things for most humans.

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  36. Mister Bluster says:

    @dennis:..Yo! Dennis! R U back in town?

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  37. Kit says:

    @MarkedMan: I think you are exactly right. In most European countries the state pays for the upkeep of churches and in some cases pays, directly or indirectly, the salaries of the ministers, rabbis etc. So parishioners have no economic stake in the institution.

    While I do not claim any expertise on the subject, in countries like Denmark and Switzerland, people must declare their religion, and the state then deducts a given amount of tax to support one’s preferred institution. Atheism is a valid choice and certainly saves on taxes. By memory, a generation back, 90% of the population in Denmark declared themselves as belonging to the state church, while only 10% professed a belief in God. This is, I was told, because people believe that religion still makes up part of their culture and the buildings deserve to be up-kept. I can hardly imagine a more different mentality to that current in the States.

    ReplyReply



    0



    0
  38. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Leonard:

    Why’d you stop?

    It became boring …

    ReplyReply



    0



    0

Speak Your Mind

*