Three in Ten Americans Are Unaffiliated
Three in ten Americans who are currently unaffiliated report leaving their formative religion as adults. However, rates of disaffiliation vary across religious traditions. Among immigrants, the higher concentrations of co-religionists tend to encourage rather than depress participation (Connor 2009a, 2009b; van Tubergen 2006).
If people continue to leave their religions at the same rate that they have been doing so for decades and there were no limit on how many could switch, Christianity would fall to 35% of Americans.
The state-by-state map shows that the share of Americans identifying as white mainline Protestants varies from as high as 27 percent in South Dakota to as low as 5 percent in Utah. Evangelicals are also represented, with their share ranging from 18 percent in Tennessee to as little as 4 percent in Utah. Non-Christian Christians and those who claim no religion are the second largest religious group nationally, making up 22 percent of all respondents. These Americans include atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe in a higher power but are not sure what to call it.
The report was conducted before the beginning of the pandemic, so it is not clear whether there will be an increase in disaffiliation among religious organizations as a result of the virus. However, the PRRI study suggests that more people are looking to escape the boundaries of traditional denominations. This trend is reflected in the many evangelical and nondenominational churches that have been popping up all over America.
Although most Americans are Christians, specific religious affiliation varies greatly by state and region. For example, the proportion of Catholics in a state can range from a third or more in Oregon and New Hampshire to as little as a tenth in Mississippi. In addition, the percentage of Evangelical Protestants varies from a high of 43 percent in Tennessee to a low of 4 percent in Utah. The majority of Christian groups skew Republican in their partisan identification, including a large number of Mormons.
Catholics account for 23 percent of all Americans, but their church attendance has dropped significantly in recent years. Gallup Daily polling based on interviews with 175,000 adults found that less than half of Catholics report attending mass at least a few times per week. The geographic distribution of Catholics is influenced by complex historical patterns of migration, along with higher populations of Hispanics (who are predominantly Catholic) in some states. These factors also help explain the dominance of Protestants in certain Southern states.
Across class, gender, age and race, Americans have been shifting away from organized religion. And this trend shows no sign of slowing down. In 2021, the number of people who identify as religiously unaffiliated was 6 percentage points higher than it was in 2011.
A large share of people who disaffiliated from their childhood religion reported very low levels of religious involvement in their formative years. People who are college-educated are also more likely to be unaffiliated than those with a high school education or less. Moreover, women who are child-free are twice as likely to be unaffiliated than their married, childless counterparts.
In addition, the role of family has been important in shaping patterns of religious change. Americans who were raised in a religious tradition and maintained that identity as adults are more likely to say they turned to their parents for guidance when facing a life challenge than those who left their childhood religion.
It’s long been obvious that fewer Americans identify as Christians and more say they have no religion at all. Church attendance is also lower than in the past. But it’s important to keep in mind that “religious” and “irreligious” aren’t synonymous terms. Just because someone is irreligious doesn’t mean they believe in no god at all — they could believe in a deity or a devil, for example.
The percentage of American adults who identify as religiously unaffiliated is increasing at a rapid pace. But the change varies by generation. For example, more than six in 10 liberal baby boomers were members of a church or other religious organization when they grew up. But only about three in 10 liberal millennials are members today. This shift is likely due to differences in childhood religiosity. Specifically, young Americans raised in single-parent homes are less likely to say grace at meals. This may be one reason why they are more likely to describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.