Perspective 84. Is the United States Becoming Less Religious?
Modernization has generally been associated with secularization in the developed world. The United States has often been considered something of an exception to this pattern: more religious than other nations to which it is usually compared. But is the United States, in fact, also becoming less religious?
Yes. In an eye-opening report by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian declined from 77 percent to 65 percent over the 2009-2019 decade. During the same period, those describing themselves as religiously unaffiliated rose from 17 to 26 percent (including 9 percent who identify as agnostics or atheists).
In perspective, this is part of a long-term trend. As recently as the late 1070s, another study found that 90 percent the U.S. public still identified as Christians. At that time, the United States was indeed ranked as one of the more religious nations, especially in comparison to other industrialized Western societies. But since the turn of the century, the move away from organized religion has been broad and rapid (for such basic social shifts).
Not surprisingly, the transformation is strongly linked to age. Among those of us born before 1945, fully 84 percent of Americans identify as Christian. In the youngest age group surveyed, millennials (born 1981-1996), this figure dropped to 49 percent. Actuarial realities do the rest, as generation replaces generation.
One result of the change has been, paradoxically, to highlight the presence of evangelical (“born-again”) Christians. While they have also declined as a share of the population (28 to 25 percent) they have become a larger part of the shrinking Christian population, accounting now for about 59 percent of all Protestants.
To enlarge the perspective, a major study of 49 nations over the 2007-2019 period demonstrates that 43 of them became less religious (the exceptions were non-Western or post-Soviet states). The United States is not exceptional, though given its previous higher level of religiosity, the change has been more remarkable.
The authors of the study (led by Ronald Inglehart) also report that secularization has not led to any apparent decline in civic order or public morality. To the contrary, the turn away from religion seems to reflect a growing sense of security in which religious precepts seem less urgent.