Shifting Religious Landscapes: Pew Releases Two New Studies

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Over the past few weeks, Pew Research has released its findings from two major studies on the religious composition of various populations. In April, the center released “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” which projects the religious makeup of future global populations based on current statistics, including “age, fertility, mortality, migration and religious switching for multiple religious groups around the world.” Released just last week, the second study titled, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” is an analysis of the current religious composition of the U.S. population based on data collected in 2007 and 2014. Both reports have been generating some buzz, as the numbers and projections suggest marked changes in religious populations.

[Credit: Sowlos / CC via Wikimedia]

[Credit: Sowlos / CC via Wikimedia]

Looking at the American study first, Pew summarizes its finding in the first sentence:

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.

According to the data, the Christian population of the U.S. declined 8 percentage points from 2007 to 2014. The biggest loss was to mainline Protestants Churches. The Christian share of the overall population went from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. Despite the drop, Pew notes that “the United States [still] remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world” with an estimated 174.3 million followers in 2014.

At the same time, the “unaffiliated” population significantly increased, rising six percentage points from 16.8 percent to 22.8 percent. It is important to note that Pew defines “unaffiliated” as Agnostics, Atheists and “people who do not identify with any particular religion.” That latter designation includes those persons who are spiritual but not religious; and religious but not labeled. Pew clarifies this definition in Appendix C of its world projections study, saying:

Surveys have found that belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7 percent of unaffiliated Chinese adults, 30 percent of unaffiliated French adults and 68 percent of unaffiliated U.S. adults.

This is an important point when reviewing the data. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, titled “The Future of Religion is Bleak,” Tufts professor Daniel C. Dennett suggested that the rise of the “nones” or “unaffiliated,” is evidence of the decline of religion. The author’s reasoning is based on the definition of “unaffiliated” as solely Atheists, ignoring the growing population of “spiritual but not affiliated.” While Pew statistics do indicate a decline in traditional organized religion, they do not necessarily indicate a decline in personal religious belief or ritual practice. This is something easily understood and seen within the collective Pagan, Heathen and Polytheists contexts. People can be religious and unaffiliated.

So where do the alternative religions fit into the Pew study on American trends from 2007-2014? Pew uses a series of eight categories, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Unaffiliated, Other World Religions and Other Faiths.

“World religions,” which include “Sikhs, Baha’is, Taoists, Jains and a variety of other world religions,” have, as a groups, increased slightly to 0.3% of the current American population. The “other faiths” grouping includes “Unitarians, those who identify with Native American religions, Pagans, Wiccans, New Agers, deists, Scientologists, pantheists, polytheists, Satanists and Druids, just to name a few.” This category has remained stable at 0.4% of the population.

While the “other faith” basket is quite diverse, there are a few interesting statistics to pull out of the study. For example, in 2007, the gender distribution for the “New Age” sub-category, under which they placed Wicca, was evenly distributed. Since that point, there appears to have been a slight surge in female adherents. The 2014 data shows 61 percent of the population is now female. In addition, the Southern and Western U.S. have the largest populations of “other faiths.” Each area is home to 31 percent of the total U.S. population of “other faiths.”

The study also demonstrates that the “other faiths” and “unaffiliated” categories both have the largest “Millennial” populations. This may account for the large number of “New Age” respondents claiming “some college,” as well as the largest income bracket being “under $30,000.” Pew itself concludes that the religions and religious groupings that experienced the most growth during this period have larger populations of young people.

[Photo Credit: Ktrinko / Via Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Ktrinko / Via Wikimedia]

Turning to Pew’s world projections, the story is slightly different. From 2010-2050, the Christian population is projected to increase at the same rate as the world’s overall population, maintaining  its 31.4 percent global share. While some countries do show a decline, as the United States, other areas, such as sub-Saharan Africa, will increase.

At the same time, the Muslim population is expected to skyrocket. By 2050, Pew estimates that Muslim population will be equal to the Christian population, and by 2070, the center projects that there will be more Muslims than Christians worldwide. As noted earlier, Pew bases these projections on current fertility rates, migration patterns, life expectancy and other statistics that indicate population shifts.

As for minority religions, the changes are marginal at best. As with the American study, Pew uses eight groupings, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Unaffiliated, Folk Religions and Other Religions. Folk religions are defined as “African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions and Australian aboriginal religions;” and “other religions” are defined as “the Baha’i faith, Jainism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca, Zoroastrianism and many other religions.”

While the American study demonstrates a recent increase in the unaffiliated, the world projections suggest a future overall drop. Of course, these shifts are largely location dependent. Pew projects that, by 2050, three countries will have an “unaffiliated” majority, including France, New Zealand and the Netherlands. As noted earlier, “unaffiliated” is defined as Atheists, Agnostics and “people who do not identify with any particular religion.” While these countries may no longer have a formal Christian majority, it does not mean that they are “losing their religion.” France, for example, is a fiercely secular country. The growth of the “unaffiliated” may simply indicate a surge in religious individualism, as fostered by the specific culture, as much as a surge in Atheism.

Where does the global study project “other religions” going by 2050? While the study suggests a slight decline from 0.8% to 0.7%  of the total world population, the number of actual people will rise from 58 million to 61 million. Unfortunately, this grouping of religions is far too broad to pick out any data specifically on Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist trends. As recorded by Pew, “The growth trajectories of specific religions in this category could vary greatly.” However, Pew did note that Wiccans and Pagans, along with Unitarians, featured largely in a previous landscape survey concerning the switching of religions.

pewFor our purposes, Pew’s results are too broad to provide any concrete data on trends in Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist practices. However, the studies provide a sense that these minority religions could gain momentum within the United States and other cultures where “unaffiliated” populations are expanding. Even if the “other faiths” or “other religions” are not expanding themselves, acceptance may become easier in those areas; unlike regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where Pentecostal Christianity is on the rise.

Returning to the Wall Street Journal article, Professor Dennett suggests that “religion recedes whenever human security and well-being rises,” and when people have increased exposure to information. This may be true, as many people do tend to rely on spiritual belief and religious practice when faced with crisis or the unknown.  However, as noted earlier, religion doesn’t appear to be “receding.”

Dennett’s analysis is based on the more traditional monotheistic models of organized religion and does not take into account the individual-based models that we often find in Paganism, Heathenry and Polytheist movements and beyond. Pew’s research does appear to show a decline in adherence to the older models of religious practice within the U.S., as exemplified by decline in specific Christian affiliations. However, there is also an increase in the more individual-based models, as shown by the increase in “other faiths” and “unaffiliated” categories.

Regardless, even this decline is limited to by regions and cultures. While Dennett may be absolutely correct in noting a religious shift based on security and access to information (or education,) the conclusion that religion’s future is bleak is not exactly accurate. The future of the older models of religious practice may be uncertain; but not religion as a whole.

One last point to note is that Pew indicates that the reporting on religion and projections is complex and often flawed. Religious surveys can be significantly influenced by politics, social or family pressures, cultural expectations and other external factors. Ultimately, the Pew studies provide broad suggestions of shifts and trends.But they do not indicate true religious belief, something personal that can be deeply hidden and something that is constantly changing.