"The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing." This is the upshot of an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center, which updates a very similar huge survey the organization did in 2007.
They surveyed 35,000 Americans over several months in 2014.
While about seven in 10 American still identify with the Christian faith, the survey found that "the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christian has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years," from 78.4 percent in the 2007 survey to 70.6 percent in 2014, a 7.8 percent decline.
Non-Christian faiths did better in the survey, rising from 4.7 percent of the population in 2007 to 5.9 percent in 2014. But the real winners were the religiously unaffiliated, rising from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014.
Percentage-wise, mainline Protestant churches declined 3.4 percent in just seven years, from 18.1 percent to 14.7 and Roman Catholicism 3.1 percent in the same time period from 23.9 of Americans in 2007 to 20.8 in 2014.
Most strikingly to me, this is not just a loss in percentage but a real loss in numbers. The population of the U.S. increased from 227 million adults in 2007 to nearly 245 million in 2014. But the share of adults who identified as Christian fell, as noted above, from more than 78 percent — about 178 million — in 2007 to just under 71 percent – about 173 million Americans in 2007, a net decline of about 5 million people.
Evangelical Christians did a little better, only declining .9 percent relative to all Americans and actually increasing in real numbers about 2 million people.
With Catholics apparently declining both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers, the survey estimates there are 3 million fewer Catholics today than in 2007. This marks a new point, since due to the influx of immigrants, the number of Catholics had remained stable over numerous decades.
As a Catholic, this survey — which will surely be fretted over in the Vatican — makes me even more interested in what Pope Francis will say when he visits the United States and speaks before Congress in September.
Vermont leads in 'nones'
The study also includes state-by-state numbers, noting that the decline in the number of adults identifying with any organized religion is "taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups." Nationally, it found that 22.8 percent of adult Americans do not identify with any organized religion.
In Vermont, the religiously unaffiliated are the largest group, with a whopping 37 percent unaffiliated (7 percent each for agnostic and atheist, 22 percent nothing in particular and 2 percent don't know). Christian 54 percent, including 22 percent Catholic 19 percent mainline Protestant and 11 percent evangelical. Non-Christian faiths, 8 percent, including 2 percent Jewish and about 1 percent each for Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu.
New Hampshire comes in second in the religiously unaffiliated category with 36 percent. The rest of New England: Maine, 31; Massachusetts, 32; Connecticut, 23. Rhode Island is the only New England state below the national average at 20 percent of adults identifying no religious affiliation. New York, 27, Pennsylvania, 21. Not surprisingly, the bell-weather state of Ohio comes in almost at the national average of unaffiliated, 22 percent, just .8 point below the national average.
Not surprisingly, "Bible Belt" states such as Alabama, 12; Louisiana, 13; and Texas, 18 percent, are lower than the national average of religiously unaffiliated adults. The West came in higher, with California and Arizona at 27 percent. Next highest to New England in the percentage of religiously unaffiliated among adults is the Northwest, with Washington at 32 percent; Oregon at 32, and Montana at 30.
I have to wonder if the rapidly increasingly decline in identification with organized religion is a symptom of the loss of faith in institutions generally in the face of developments such as much-lower social mobility for even the college-educated young, seemingly endless wars and of course sexual abuse of minors and the cover up in the Catholic Church.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni notes, polls of American for over a decade now have shown that most Americans think the country is on the wrong track, with the most recent such poll showing that 62 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track and 28 percent think its on the right track.
Faced with failing institutions, there are two obvious choices: Cease believing in institutions and put your own views and desires ahead of everything else — or look for ways, however small, to help revive, reform and support the institutions needed for the common good. Currently, in my view, too many American are taking the first route, and with a vengeance: "I've got mine — and to hell with you."
Harsh? Maybe, maybe not.
Mark Rondeau is County News Editor and Religion Editor for the Banner. Contact him at 802-447-7567, ext. 113.