The unaffiliated are leaving religion early, and few are looking to reconnect
WASHINGTON—A new survey finds one out of every four (25 percent) Americans—and nearly four in ten (39 percent) young adults—now identify as religiously unaffiliated, a group that has quadrupled in size since the 1990s and accounts for the fastest growing major group in the American religious landscape.
The nonpartisan PRRI conducted the PRRI/RNS August 2016 Survey in partnership with the Religion News Service among 2,201 Americans between July 27 and August 9, 2016. The survey chronicles the growth of the unaffiliated, investigates factors behind the group’s growth and resiliency, and parses out three distinct subgroups within the unaffiliated: Unattached Believers, Apatheists, and Rejectionists.
The Growth of the Unaffiliated
At 25 percent, the religiously unaffiliated now constitute the largest group in the national religious landscape. The growth of the unaffiliated began in the 1990s: in 1991, only six percent of Americans identified with no religion in particular. By the end of the decade, that number had climbed to 14 percent and eventually reached 20 percent in 2012.
“The growing ranks of religiously unaffiliated Americans have been fed by striking simultaneous losses among white Christian groups,” says Robert P. Jones, PRRI CEO and author of The End of White Christian America. “The religiously unaffiliated now outnumber Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and white evangelical Protestants, and their growth has been a key factor in the transformation of the country over the last decade from a majority white Christian nation to a minority white Christian nation.”
The generation gaps in religious affiliation are stark. Young adults (age 18-29) are three times as likely as seniors (age 65 and older) to identify as religiously unaffiliated: 39 percent vs. 13 percent, respectively. While previous generations were also more likely to be religiously unaffiliated in their twenties, young adults today are nearly four times as likely as young adults a generation ago to identify as religiously unaffiliated. In 1986, only 10 percent of young adults claimed no religious affiliation.
Factors Behind the Growth of the Religiously Unaffiliated
The most common reason unaffiliated Americans give for leaving their childhood religion: 60 percent say they stopped believing in their childhood religion’s teachings, while 32 percent say it was because their family was not that religious growing up, and 29 percent cite negative teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people by religious organizations.
“There is no single reason the unaffiliated are growing so dramatically, but this survey finds new evidence that the structure of family life is part of the story,” says PRRI Research Director Daniel Cox. “Americans raised by divorced parents or by parents in interfaith marriages are less likely than those brought up in two-parent or single-faith households to be religiously active as adults.”
Children of divorced parents are more likely than children whose parents are married to be unaffiliated (35 percent vs. 23 percent, respectively) and less likely to attend religious services at least once per week (21 percent vs. 34 percent, respectively). Religious diversity in the home is also associated with higher rates of disaffiliation: those raised in religiously mixed households are more likely than those raised by parents of the same faith to identify as unaffiliated (31 percent vs. 22 percent, respectively).
Religious switching has also played a key role in the growth of religiously unaffiliated Americans. No group has benefitted more from this process than the unaffiliated. Nearly one in five (19 percent) Americans switched from their childhood religious identity to become unaffiliated as adults, and relatively few Americans who were raised unaffiliated are joining a religious tradition. This dynamic has resulted in a dramatic net gain—16 percentage points—for the religiously unaffiliated due to religious switching.
Why the Unaffiliated Are Unlikely to Come Back to Organized Religion
Very few unaffiliated Americans are actively looking to join a religious community. Only seven percent of the unaffiliated report they are searching for a religion that would be right for them, compared to 93 percent who say they are not.
Moreover, religion is not a subject that unaffiliated Americans devote much time to in their daily life. Seventy-two percent of the religiously unaffiliated say they spend relatively little time in their day-to-day lives thinking about God and religion.
Religiously unaffiliated households are also on the rise. A majority (54 percent) of unaffiliated Americans who are married today report that their spouse shares the same religious background as they do. And one reason this disaffiliation trend is likely to continue: most unaffiliated Americans believe it is not important for children to be brought up in religion so they can learn “good values.”
Who are the Unaffiliated?
The religiously unaffiliated are distinct from religious Americans in important ways, but there is also considerable diversity within this group. Using two separate questions that measure the personal relevance of religion and the social benefit of religion, PRRI identified three distinct groups among the unaffiliated: Rejectionists, Apatheists, and Unattached Believers.
Rejectionists, who account for the majority (58 percent) of all unaffiliated Americans, say religion is not personally important in their lives and believe religion as a whole does more harm than good in society. A majority of Rejectionists are white and male, and a plurality have a four-year college degree. Rejectionists are the most likely to cite a personally negative experience at a place of worship and the most likely to report doubting that God exists.
Apatheists, who make up 22 percent of the unaffiliated, say religion is not personally important to them, but believe it is generally more socially helpful than harmful. They look like a cross-section of the unaffiliated as a whole. A majority of Apatheists are white and male. They are nearly as likely as Rejectionists to say they seldom or never attend formal religious services, but nearly as likely as Unattached Believers to say their last experience at a worship service was primarily positive.
Unattached Believers, who make up only 18 percent of the unaffiliated, say religion is important to them personally. Unattached Believers are older than Rejectionists and Apatheists; they are less white (only half are white), more likely to be women, more likely to live in the South, and are the most likely to only have a high school degree or less. Unattached Believers are also the most likely to say they are currently seeking to join a religious community or congregation, to say they contemplate God or religion regularly, and to say they have a personal view of God.
The topline questionnaire, full methodology, and additional findings and analysis can be found here: https://www.prri.org/research/prri-rns-2016-religiously-unaffiliated-americans/.
The PRRI/RNS August 2016 Survey was designed and conducted by PRRI in partnership with Religion News Service. Results of the survey were based on bilingual (Spanish and English) RDD telephone interviews conducted between July 27, 2016, and August 9, 2016, by professional interviewers under the direction of SSRS. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 2,201 adults 18 years of age or older living in the United States (1,330 respondents were interviewed on a cell phone). No interviewing was conducted on August 1 or 2, 2016. The survey was made possible by a generous grant from The Henry Luce Foundation with additional support from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 2.5 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.
PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization specializing in research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.