The number of Americans who identify with “no religion” is now for the first time just as large as Catholics and evangelicals, according to a recent survey of US citizens’ religious beliefs.
Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor, interviewed more than 2,000 people in person for the survey. He and colleagues found that 23.1% of Americans claim no religion, comprising a group that includes atheists, agnostics, the spiritual, and just about any other person that rejects organized religion. Meanwhile, 23% of the respondents identified as Catholic and 22.5% as evangelical. This means that all three major groups are somewhat tied, bearing in mind the survey’s margin of error.
The 2018 GSS was just released and there's some big news. Those of "no religion" (23.1%) are statistically the same size as evangelicals (22.8%). There was also a small resurgence of mainline Protestants, while Catholics are down 3% in the last four years. pic.twitter.com/uiyDSe7M6f
The findings reflect a rising trend in “no-religiousness” among Americans, primarily driven by millennials. Since 1991, the number of Americans who claim no religion has risen by 266%. Within six years, this group will become the largest in the country, Burge told CNN. So, it seems like the USA is catching up with some European countries whose populations have long ago transitioned towards a ‘no religion’ majority. These so-called post-Christian societies include Estonia, Sweden, and the Netherlands where between 70% and 80% of young adults categorize themselves as non-religious.
Even among people who identify with a particular religion, a large percentage aren’t necessarily involved in religious practices. A different survey found that two-thirds of American Christian young adults stopped going to church at some point between the ages of 18 and 22.
What makes more and more people feel alienated by organized religion is a matter of debate. The internet certainly has a major role to play by spreading ideas and helping people find other like-minded individuals on all sort of online communities like Reddit.
However, these findings should also be taken with a grain of salt. A lot of these people who identify as “no religion” still act pretty religiously. What do I mean by that? A recent Pew Research Center survey of more than 4,700 U.S. adults found that one-third of Americans say they do not believe in the God of the Bible, but that they do believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. The same survey also found that most of the respondents who identified with ‘no religion’ believed in angels and prayed.
Then there’s a 2014 survey conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture on 15,738 Americans, which found that 13.2% of the participants called themselves atheist or agnostic. One-third of these, however, responded affirmatively to the question “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?” And while some might say they have ‘no religion’, these same people might be engaged in New Age spiritual practices, which are early similar to organized religion in many respects. In other words, Americans are not necessarily prepared to relinquish their supernatural beliefs but rather find it increasingly difficult to relate to traditional forms of religion.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.