The nation has grown less religious in the last two decades, a new study shows, with a 10 percent drop in the number of people who call themselves Christians and increases in all 50 states among those who are not aligned with any faith.
Between 1990 and 2008, the percentage of Americans who identified themselves as Christian dropped from 86 percent to 76 percent, reports the new American Religious Identification Survey, a wide-ranging survey released March 9.
The group that researchers call the “Nones” — atheists, agnostics, and other secularists — have almost doubled in that time period, from 8.2 percent to 15 percent.
And, in a further indication of growing secularism, more than a quarter of Americans — 27 percent — said they do not expect to have a religious funeral when they die.
“Traditionally, historically, people are interested in their immortal soul, salvation, heaven and hell,” said Barry Kosmin, the co-author of the survey and director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Connecticut.
“If you don’t have a religious funeral, you’re probably not interested in heaven and hell.”
The survey of more than 54,000 respondents followed similar large studies in 2001 and in 1990.
Though the largest increase in “Nones” occurred between 1990 and 2001 (from 8.2 percent to 14.1 percent), Kosmin said more people have been willing to identify themselves as atheist or agnostic in the last seven years.
“There’s the anti-religious group among what we call the ‘Nones,’” he said, “but then the kind of nonreligious, the irreligious … have also increased.”
In the past, the typical “None” was a young, single male living in the West, but the image of the nonreligious is broader now, even if it remains 60 percent male.
“It’s increasingly middle age and relatively across the board, less specific now,” Kosmin said. “It’s increasingly ex-Catholics in New England.”
In fact, researchers found that while there was a 14 percent drop in self-identified Catholics in New England — from 50 percent to 36 percent — there was an increase in Nones of exactly the same percentage — from 8 to 22 percent.
Mark Silk, who directs Trinity College’s Program on Public Values and helped design the new study, said the almost threefold increase in “Nones” in New England was larger than the increases in other states.
“You’ve got Vermont, 34 percent Nones,” said Silk, co-author of One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics. “Northern New England now is more the None zone. The Pacific Northwest is still up there but the increase in New England, that’s very striking. It says a lot about the decline of Catholicism.”
The research echoes findings of a recent Gallup Poll that revealed that 42 percent of Vermonters said that religion is “an important part” of their daily lives — the lowest percentage of state residents polled across the country.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said the findings — including that more than one quarter of Americans don’t expect a religious funeral — really bring home the secular nature of a sizable slice of the U.S. population.
“As an evangelical Christian, I see this as further evidence of the fact that American Christians live in the midst of a vast mission field and this should be a wake-up call — I would say, yet another wake-up call — to the magnitude of our task in sharing the gospel in modern America,” he said.
Beyond the secular nature of the country, the survey found a surge in the number of people who called themselves “nondenominational Christians,” from less than 200,000 in 1990 to more than 8 million in 2008.
“Brand loyalty is gone,” Kosmin said. “Those labels are no longer meaningful.”
Researchers also found that 45 percent of American Christians consider themselves born-again or evangelicals — including 39 percent of mainline Christians and 18 percent of Catholics — which could indicate that exit pollsters may be hearing from a broad range of “evangelicals.”
Experts say the “Nones” figure, combined with increases in “nondenominational” numbers, explain why mainline Protestantism continues to be a shrinking phenomenon, from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 12.9 percent in 2008.
“What you see is the erosion of the religious middle ground,” said Kosmin. “Liberal (mainline Protestant) religion has been eroded by irreligion and conservative religion.”
The overall findings are based on phone interviews with 54,461 respondents, with a margin of error of plus or minus 0.5 percentage points. Certain questions, including the one about religious rituals such as funerals, were asked of a nationally representative sample of 1,000 respondents, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Baptists may be the grayest of any major religious group in America, according to the study.
The report said the 21 percent of people who identify themselves as Baptists are 70 and older.
That compares to 12 percent of the general population, 13 percent of Catholics, 14 percent of mainline Christians and 10 percent of Mormons who fall in that age range.
Forty percent of the national population is 50 or older, while 58 percent of Baptists fall into that age bracket.
Related to that, the percentage of Baptists who are widowed is 12 percent, twice the national average. One demographic in which Baptists have far less than their share is among never-marrid singles — who make up 13 percent of Baptists, but a full 25 percent of the general population.
Baptists have gained members in the last 18 years, but comprise a smaller percentage of the population than they did when the study first compiled statistics. In 1990 there were 33.9 million Baptists, 19 percent of the population. In 2008 they numbered 36.1 million but declined to 15.8 percent of the population.
Baptists are still less educated than the general population and most denominations, but the percentage of Baptists who are college graduates increased from 11 percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2008.
The survey defines “Baptist” in a broad sense, including Southern Baptist, American Baptist, Free Will, Missionary and African-American denominations.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Articles from Religion News Service and Associated Baptist Press were combined for this report.)