THE BLOG

Losing Their Religion: Rise of the Nones

05/14/2015 05:35 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

The new Pew study of religion in the U.S. confirms and gives contour to a few interrelated trends. First and foremost is marked Christian decline over the past decade. In the seven years since the last Pew survey, the percentage of Christians fell almost 8%, from 78.4% to 70.6%. By far, the biggest losers are Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, such as the Presbyterians and Episcopalians. The latter have been experiencing long-term decline for many decades now as they struggle to appeal to Generation Xers and Millennials.

So the big newsmaker on the Christian front is Catholic decline, dropping more than 3% from 23.9% in 2007 to the current 20.8%. Until now the fourth largest Catholic Church in the world had been holding its own because of Latin American, primarily Mexican, immigration. However, lower rates of immigration over the past few years coupled with the continuing exodus of Euro-Americans from the pews has put American Catholicism in the same leaky boat as mainline Protestantism. The jury is still out on whether enthusiasm for Pope Francis will translate into real Catholic growth, but I wouldn't bet on it.

While there are no real winners in the overarching pattern of Christian decline, Evangelical Protestants declined by less than 1% over the past seven years. In general, Americans find this brand of enthusiastic and theologically conservative Christianity more appealing. Rock star televangelist Joel Osteen's Health and Wealth Gospel, served up with a killer smile and Barbie-doll wife, resonates with millions of American Evangelicals.

If Christianity is the big loser in our rapidly shifting religious economy, a religion is the clear winner. The percentage of nones, those who have no religious affiliation, shot up almost 7%, from 16.1% to 22.8%. This surging category of disproportionately young atheists, agnostics and those who claim "nothing in particular" are now the second largest group, behind Protestants, in the American religious economy. In addition to being concentrated among Generation Xers and Millennials, nones are overrepresented among men and people who live in the American West.

Clearly the largest trend is the diversification of the American religious economy. Beyond Christian decline and the rise of the nones, the Pew survey confirms the increasingly large array of choices for American consumers of supernatural goods and services. Within pluralization the other significant trend is the growing ranks non-Christian faiths, a category that grew by more than 1%, from 4.7% to 5.9%. Muslims and Hindus made the most significant gains as Jews made no statistically significant gain.

Pondering the future of the American religious economy, one wonders if largely discredited secularization theory actually had it right. Prominent sociologists of religions, such as Peter Berger, had argued that the U.S. would follow Western European footsteps on the path to secularization of society. Berger posited that a free market of faith would ultimately lead to widespread non-belief as religious consumers increasingly questioned the validity and utility of all products offered in the marketplace. Convinced by the arguments of American exceptionalism and the idea that free market competition actually invigorates religion, Berger came to disavow his influential theory of secularization. While Americans are still much more religious than Europeans, the overarching trends, highlighted by Pew, suggest that American society is indeed secularizing.