Digging deeper into the Pew data about nones, millennials, and Christians

The recent and much-referenced Pew Study reveals as much or more about shifts than it does declines

Various pundits and media types have doubled down on their claims that Christianity in America is dying fast, pointing to the recent Pew study indicating declines in the total number of Christians. But the truth is that while the data demonstrates there are increases in the number of those who now identify themselves as “unaffiliated” with organized religion, the religious landscape has not changed very much at all, certainly not as dramatically as some say. As my earlier Catholic World Report blog post pointed out, although there is continued decline in membership within the mainline Protestant denominations and increases in the category of “nones”—those without any religious affiliation—there is reason for some optimism.  For example, despite claims that the number of Catholics are declining, the reality is that although Catholics have decreased in numbers in the Northeast and Midwest, they are increasing in the Southern and Western part of the country.  

And those who describe themselves as “evangelical Christians” have actually increased in numbers. The Pew data shows that from 2007 to 2014 the number of those who identify themselves as evangelicals in America has gone from 59.8 million to 62.2 million. Christianity Today points out that Evangelicals now make up a clear majority (55%) of all U.S. Protestants.  In 2007, 51% of U.S. Protestants identified with evangelical churches. And thirty-five percent of all U.S. adults now describe themselves as born again or evangelical Christians—up from 34% in 2007.  White “born again” or evangelical Protestants—a group closely watched by progressives because of their historical voting behavior—is down slightly from 21% in 2007 to 19% in 2014, but there was a significant increase in the number of Hispanics who identify as either “born again” or evangelical Protestants.

Much of the mainstream media either failed to mention these positive trends or downplayed them. While the New York Times has focused on the declines, the reality is that Evangelical Protestantism continues to gain more adherents than it loses.  Pew researchers write: “Overall, nearly a quarter of U. S. adults say they were raised as evangelical Protestants.  More than a third of them (8.4% of all adults) no longer identify with evangelicalism.  But, even larger numbers (9.8% of all adults) now identify with evangelical Protestantism after having been raised outside the tradition.”

Some of these converts to evangelical Protestantism are Catholics. The new Pew data indicate that Catholicism’s retention rates have slipped.  In 2007, 68% of all respondents who were raised Catholic continued to identify as such as adults.  Today, 59% of those raised Catholic still identify with Catholicism as adults—but 41% do not.  But, significantly, these declines are not evenly distributed throughout the country.  Many of these defectors are living in the Northeast—places like Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut where Mass attendance continues to plummet.  Results of a Gallup poll published in February 2015 revealed that Vermont has the lowest overall rate of church attendance of all the states, with only 17% of the its residents claiming to attend church each week. Massachusetts is not much better with only 22% revealing weekly church attendance, and New Hampshire has only 20% indicating weekly church attendance.  

While one in five of those who were raised Catholic now say they have no religious affiliation, 10% of them identify with evangelical denominations, 5% with mainline denominations and smaller numbers with other faiths.  Meanwhile, the Northeast losses for the Catholic Church are attenuated by gains in the southern part of the country where Catholics have increased from 25% of those living in the South in 2007 to 27% of the population today, and in the West where the percentage of Catholics has increased from 23% in 2007 to 26% in 2014.   

Those increases were little discussed by the dominant media. For instance, proclaiming that “Christians in the U.S. In Decline,” NPR touted the increases in the number of those without religious affiliation. Yes, there is good reason for concern as the unaffiliated have increased from just over 16% in 2007 to 22.8% in 2014. But the growth in the category of those Pew has designated as “nones” has likely has more to do with sociology than theology: immigrants arriving to the United States in the 1990s and later are more likely to identify as “nones.”  And, the 2014 Pew study found that 41% of those who identify as gay or lesbian have no religious affiliation. According to a Religion Dispatches contributor, “the reason so many LGBT people have fled the church tracks closely with why millennials in general have abandoned sanctuaries across the country is a perception that churches are filled with judgmental and hypocritical people.”

Last year Pew found that 73% of LGBT people perceived evangelical churches to be unfriendly and 79% felt unwelcome in Catholic parishes.  Notably, the mainline Protestant churches fared no better as the survey found that only 10% of LGBT people saw such churches as friendly. In the current Pew study, 24% of LGBT respondents claimed that they believe in nothing in particular. And many of them are not attracted to what some call “evangelical-lite” churches because “they still perpetuate the overall sexual shame that is inherent in much of traditional Christian theology.”  While the LGBT community does not want to be reminded of biblical injunctions or of sin, it appears—ironically—that the churches which refuse to acknowledge sin are not deemed worth attending. In responding to an article on Religion Dispatches, Rev. DeWayne Davis of All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church in Minneapolis, wrote: “I assure you that ‘original sin’ or any other creedal or doctrinal straightjacket will not be found in the room.”

Indeed, that may be the problem: if there is no creed or doctrine beyond “we are all good,” there is no good reason to attend church; any group activity will suffice.  Yet Candace Chellow-Hodge, a contributor to Religion Dispatches, suggests her own Church, Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C. is offering “an alternative theology centered in the Creation of Spirituality of Matthew Fox that attracts both LGBT and straight people who may otherwise describe themselves as ‘nones.’” It is not a coincidence that former Catholic priest Matthew Fox would be leading such a congregation.  

Millennials share some of the same concerns as the LGBT community about judgmental attitudes, and there are indeed increases in the number of millennials in the “unaffiliated” group in the 2014 Pew survey. Still, even that data is not as dire as NPR would have us believe. In previous studies Pew has found that more than two-thirds of the unaffiliated say that they believe in God, and 21% say that they pray every day.  In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

Pew also acknowledged the fact that the sharpest growth of those who are unaffiliated are those “who are living with a partner, never married.” Twenty-six percent of those who were living with a partner in 2007 were among the unaffiliated; by 2014, 35% of those who were living with a partner were unaffiliated.  Those who are living together with a partner are also more likely to say that religion is not important—supporting Mary Eberstadt’s thesis, in her book How the West Really Lost God (Templeton, 2014), on the relationship between marriage delays and declines in religious affiliation.

Still, we need to be reminded that although the unaffiliated is a large and growing group, it is certainly not “new.” Today’s religious “nones” have been with us for more than a century as there have always been those who realize that their religious affiliations no longer match their self-perception as self-directed and modern people. When the grandmother of New York City’s brilliant master builder, Robert Moses, realized that she had “outgrown” her synagogue, she moved the family to the Society for Ethical Culture, founded in 1876 by Felix Adler, a Reformed Jew who created a post-Jewish religion based on social justice. The meeting house is still there on the upper West Side on 64th Street—although it is not quite what it was a century ago.  At that time, membership drew from wealthy Jewish leaders, the intellectuals of early New York City who saw themselves as more enlightened than their synagogue-attending co-religionists. Today, the focus for the Society for Ethical Culture is on social justice and youth programs.  According to Robert Caro’s book, The Power Broker (Vintage, 1975), by the time Robert Moses was an adult he had no affiliation at all—as is often the case of those who attend these kinds of pseudo-churches/groups.

Many of today’s “nones” are similar to these earlier intellectual seekers in that they are primariily interested in the contemporary culture—the arts, theatre, philosophy and politics—and social justice.  While some millennials believe they do not need God to be good, the majority still believe in God—and they still pray. They just do not want to be reminded of God’s commandments as many of them do not believe they need a set of rules to guide them.  The millennials are the ones to watch now, seeing whether they too will return to religion as they form families and begin to raise children. At this point we simply do not know.  

But we do know that evangelicalism remains strong and vibrant as increasing numbers of individuals—both Protestant and Catholic—describe themselves as “born again”. What George Weigel describes as “Evangelical Catholicism” is growing—as Catholics realize that they too need a deeper, transformative relationship with Jesus.  The “winners” in the Catholic world are those parishes and dioceses throughout the country that help parishioners develop and deepen that friendship.  And that is part of the good news found below the surface of the Pew Research Center’s newest study.


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About Anne Hendershott 89 Articles
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).