After taking off his “cycle-clips in awkward reverence,” the British poet Philip Larkin once stopped to observe a sacred space: “Wondering what to look for; wondering, too, / When churches will fall completely out of use / What we shall turn them into.” The poet expressed bemused concern for what happens when churches are no longer needed, when theirs becomes “a shape less recognisable each week, / A purpose more obscure.”
Larkin’s poem “Church Going” was published in 1955, but I thought of it when the Pew Research Center released its report on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” From the survey’s overview and the first round of headlines it generated, it would be easy to imagine that America’s religious landscape had already become what Larkin intimated: abandoned cathedrals, temples converted into recreational centers, and churches re-purposed as condominiums.
The Pew survey begins with a stark overview: “The Christian share of the [United States] population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.” But the devil is in the details. In the seven years since Pew conducted its last survey, the number of Americans identifying as Christian declined by less than eight percent—from 78.4 to 70.6 percent—or by roughly five million people. Not every Christian denomination declined, and other faiths actually saw their numbers increase. It is also still true that the majority of Americans identify as Christian, and that America has more Christians than any other country in the world.
Over the last two decades, Pew has become one of the most reliable sources of data on religion in America. The Census Bureau stopped asking religious questions in the 1950s, and it’s hard to obtain reliable data from individual religious communities because they have disparate methods of measuring membership. This year’s Pew survey is based on telephone interviews with 35,071 American adults conducted last year between June and September.
The findings reveal the continuation of trends that began decades ago. Political scientist Robert Putnam explicated many of these trends in his book Bowling Alone. Putnam considered religious attendance in the context of other communal activities: Just as membership in Elks Lodges, Parent Teacher Associations, Lions Clubs, and the titular bowling leagues had fallen, so too had church-going. He distinguished between religious affiliation and attendance, speculating that while technical membership had fallen only slightly, the actual loss of practitioners was much higher, noting “a sharp rise in church attendance in the first several decades after World War II, followed by a decline in church attendance of roughly one-third between the late 1950s and the late 1990s, with more than half of the total decline occurring in the 1960s.”
Putnam offered a critical distinction between religious affiliation and practice. Many of those who have religious beliefs do not identify with a particular religious tradition, and this year’s Pew survey saw the largest increase among the unaffiliated: The number of adults who do not identify with a religious group grew from 36 million adults in 2007 to 56 million today. These individuals are not all agnostics or atheists, indeed many of them are adults who, to use Pew’s language, “describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular.’”
These are the “nones,” though just because these adults do not identify with a particular religion does not mean they are not religious. This first installment of Pew’s findings only looks at religious affiliation, but later reports will offer their findings about beliefs and practice, including for the nones. If past surveys can be trusted, many of these nones believe in a God and even have regular spiritual practices.
So the nones are on the rise, but they are not all non-believers. And while this year’s Pew survey shows that America’s religious landscape is less Christian, it is still mostly so. Some Christian denominations even saw their numbers hold steady or rise. Historically black churches, like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Church of God in Christ, and the National Baptist Convention, stayed roughly the same at around 16 million. Evangelical churches, like the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, and the Southern Baptist Convention, actually grew from around 60 million in 2007 to more than 62 million.
Mainline Protestants and Catholics saw the greatest decline: The number of Catholics fell from around 54 million in 2007 to 51 million; the number of Protestants in the American Baptist Churches, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church fell from approximately 41 million in 2007 to 36 million. Also of note is that, while its membership declined overall, American Christianity became more racially and ethically diverse: “Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 41% of Catholics (up from 35% in 2007), 24% of evangelical Protestants (up from 19%) and 14% of mainline Protestants (up from 9%).”
The Pew survey offers a fascinating look at the diversity of religion itself, but also at the religious identities of individuals. One of the most interesting findings this year was an increase in “switching,” by which Pew means American adults who have changed their religious identity. Say you began life as an Episcopalian but became Lutheran, or were raised Baptist but converted to Catholicism: You are part of the switching contingent. Though, it’s more common to switch from some religion to none. Forty-two percent of Americans have switched religions.
While 85 percent of Americans were raised as Christians, almost 25 percent no longer consider themselves Christians. So even though America is nowhere near Philip Larkin’s emptied, purposeless churches—there are still roughly 173 million Christians—the question of whether “switching” will continue at this rate is a critical one.