Shifts in America’s religions: good or bad for Jews?

In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, only 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade.

Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up none points from 17% in 2009.

Both Protestants and Catholics are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down eight points from 51% in 2009. And 20% of Americans are now Catholic, down from 23% in 2009.

Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up two points from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up two points from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up five points from 12% in 2009.

However, members of non-Christian religions have grown modestly as a share of the adult U.S. population.

Catholics no longer constitute a majority of the U.S. Hispanic population. In Pew surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 47% of Hispanics describe themselves as Catholic, down ten points from 57% a decade ago. Meanwhile, the share of Hispanics who say they are religiously unaffiliated is now 23%, up eight points from 15% in 2009.

These results come from putting together 88 Pew surveys from 2009 to 2019, included interviews with 168,890 Americans. The data shows that just like rates of religious affiliation, rates of religious attendance are declining.

Over the last decade, the share of Americans who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month dropped by 7 percentage points, while the share who say they attend religious services less often (if at all) has risen by the same degree.

In 2009, regular worship attenders (at least once or twice a month) outnumbered those who attend services only occasionally or not at all by a 52%-to-47% margin. Today those figures are reversed; more Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less (54%) than say they attend at least monthly (45%).

The changes underway in the American religious landscape are broad-based. The Christian share of the population is down and religious “nones” have grown across multiple demographic groups: white people, black people and Hispanics; men and women; in all regions of the country; and among college graduates and those with lower levels of educational attainment.

Furthermore, the data shows a wide gap between older Americans and Millennials in their levels of religious affiliation and attendance. About 84% of those born between 1928 and 1945 describe themselves as Christians, as do 76% of Baby Boomers.

In stark contrast, only half of Millennials (49%) describe themselves as Christians; four-in-ten are religious “nones,” and most startling one-in-ten Millennials identify with non-Christian faiths.

Only about one-in-three Millennials say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month. Roughly two-thirds of Millennials (64%) attend worship services a few times a year or less often, including about four-in-ten who say they seldom or never go.

Indeed, there are as many Millennials who say they “never” attend religious services (22%) as there are who say they go at least once a week (22%). In addition today, 62% of Christians say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month, which is identical to the share who said the same in 2009.

So, the nation’s overall rate of religious attendance is declining not because Christians are attending church less often, but rather because there are now fewer Christians as a share of the U.S. population.

While, the number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S. grew by almost 30 million over the last decade; the share of Americans who describe themselves as Mormons held steady at 2% over the past decade.

Meanwhile, the share of U.S. adults who identify with non-Christian faiths has ticked up two points, from 5% in 2009 to 7% today. This includes a steady 2% of Americans who are Jewish (although conversions to Judaism are down from a generation ago), along with 1% who are Muslim, 1% who are Buddhist, 1% who are Hindu, and 3% who identify with other faiths (including people who follow their own personal religious beliefs and people who describe themselves as “spiritual”).

There is still a gender gap in American religion. Women are less likely than men to describe themselves as religious “nones” (23% vs. 30%), and more likely than men to say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month (50% vs. 40%). But women, like men, have grown noticeably less religious over the last decade.

The share of “nones” among women has risen by 10 percentage points since 2009 – similar to the increase among men. And the share of women who identify as Christian has fallen by 11 points (from 80% to 69%) over that same period.

Christians have declined and “nones” have grown as a share of the adult population in all four major U.S.geographical regions. Catholic losses have been most pronounced in the Northeast, where 36% identified as Catholic in 2009, down nine points compared with 27% today. And among Protestants, declines were larger in the South, where Protestants now account for 53% of the adult population, down eleven points from 64% in 2009.

From the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestant denominations were growing in numbers; but in the last 25 years they have been in decline as they have become ever more politically active.

Religious “nones” are growing faster among Democrats than Republicans, though their ranks are swelling in both partisan political coalitions.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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