FOR THE first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority, according to a new study, as the number of Americans with no religious affiliation continues to rise.
The percentage of Protestant adults in the US is 48 per cent, the first time the authoritative Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has reported with certainty that the number has fallen below 50 per cent. The drop comes at a time when no Protestants sit on the US Supreme Court and the Republicans have their first presidential ticket with no Protestant nominees.
Among the reasons for the change is a spike in the number of American adults who say they have no religion. The Pew study, released yesterday, found that about 20 per cent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 per cent in the past five years.
The increase in people with no religion has been a preoccupation of American faith leaders, who worry the US will follow Western Europe, where church attendance has slumped.
The trend also has political implications: Pew found Americans with no religion support abortion rights and gay marriage at a much higher rate than the US public at large. These “nones” are an increasing segment of voters who are registered as Democrats or lean toward the party, growing from 17 per cent to 24 per cent over the past five years. The religiously unaffiliated are becoming as important a constituency to Democrats as evangelicals are to Republicans, Pew said.
American researchers have been struggling for decades to find a definitive reason for the steady rise in the number of those who say they have no religion. The spread of secularism in Western Europe is often viewed as a by-product of growing wealth, yet among industrialised nations, the US stood out for its deep religiosity in the face of increasing wealth.
Now, scholars say the US decline could reflect a change in how Americans describe their religious lives. In 2007, 60 per cent of people who said they seldom or never attend religious services still identified themselves as part of a religious tradition. In 2012, that fell to 50 per cent, according to Pew.
“Part of what’s going on here is that the stigma associated with not being part of any religious community has declined,” said John Green, a specialist in religion and politics at the University of Akron, who advised Pew on the survey. “In some parts of the country, there is still a stigma. But overall, it’s not the way it used to be.”
Scholars have long debated whether people who say they no longer belong to a religious group should be considered secular. While the category as defined by Pew researchers includes atheists, it also encompasses many who say they believe in God, and some who pray daily or consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious”.
More growth in “nones” is expected. One-third of adults under age 30 have no religious affiliation – against 9 per cent of people 65 and older – and are not expected to become more religiously active as they age.