The share of the U.S. population that identifies as Christian continues to shrink, falling from 77% to 65% over the past decade. Religious affiliation has declined across multiple demographic groups, but dramatic differences in the rate of decline between the young and old have created a large and widening generation gap. (Pew Research Center)
Neil Howe: With this publication, Pew updates to 2017 its in-depth "Religious Landscape Studies" that provided estimates of America's religious beliefs and practices in 2007 and 2014. (See also "Nones Rising.")
There are no bombshell revelations here. Just a straight-line continuation of the secularizing trends already registered in Pew's earlier studies and in the long-running General Social Survey. In 2014, 47% of Americans identified as Protestant. In 2018-19, that is down to 43%. The share identifying as Catholic declined slightly from 21% to 20%. The "nothing in particular" share rose from 16% to 17%. And the agnostic-plus-atheist share rose from 7% to 9%. The percent of U.S. adults who say they attend religious service "monthly or more" fell from 50% in 2014 to 45% on 2018-19. Meanwhile, the percent who say they attend "a few times a year or less" grew from 50% to 54%.
As it did in its earlier studies, Pew points out that some of this decline probably comes from noncommittal or "moderate" Christians (who never went to church very often) becoming more open about admitting they are unaffiliated. This explains the larger-than-average declines in Protestants. It also explains why church attendance has hardly dropped at all among Americans who still claim to be Christian--and why the "born again" share of Protestants has actually been rising slightly over time.
Yet most of this measured decline undoubtedly reflects real changes in belief and behavior. These changes can be decomposed into period effects (changes that appear in everyone at all ages in the same year) and cohort effects (changes that "age in" with new birth cohorts over time).
The period effects are significant. Starting in the early 1990s, after many decades of relative stability, most measures of religiosity have declined across all age groups. This decline slowed a bit in the early '00s (around the time of 9/11), but otherwise has been pretty much a straight line. Let me quote from our earlier piece: "Among the period drivers, one big one is declining public trust in churches and church leaders due to widely publicized scandals and abuses. This decline has been especially steep among liberals disaffected by churches that have allied themselves with social conservatives and the Republican Party. As a result, America's red-versus-blue political divide now encompasses religion (see Robert Putnam et al., American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us)--which tempts some Democratic leaders to abandon their religious voters."
Yet there are also strong generational drivers. The evidence suggests that Boomers, Xers, and Millennials are each becoming increasingly less religious (at the same age) than the three generations before them. Since 2007, for example, the current Pew study shows the smallest age-bracket decline for the Silent, a larger decline for Boomers and Xers, and a very large decline for Millennials.
Even among Millennials, late-wavers (born in the 1990s) appear to be less religious than early-wavers (born in the 1980s), although some of this may be caused by a progressively later age of marriage and childbearing. (Marriage and children are well-known "life cycle" triggers of greater religiosity.) The unaffiliateds' median age is 36, ten years younger than the national median age. Millennials are left-brained achievers who hold science and technology in high regard. Clearly, many of these thirtyish young adults want to break from what they perceive to be the faith-based, born-again dogmas of their Boomer parents.
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.