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America's Christian majority is shrinking, and could dip below 50% by 2070

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Since its founding, the United States has been a majority Christian nation. And while it's still the dominant religion, the country's Christian majority has been shrinking for decades. Now, a new study from Pew Research Center shows that as of 2020, the number of Americans who identify as Christian is about 64%. Fifty years ago, that number was 90%. And if that trend continues, Pew predicts that Christians could become a minority in just a few decades. Stephanie Kramer led the study for Pew Research Center. She's a senior researcher specializing in religion. And she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

STEPHANIE KRAMER: Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: First off, what's happening here? Is this more about American Christians switching to another religious identity or are they becoming nonreligious altogether?

KRAMER: They're becoming unaffiliated, so they're identifying as either atheists, agnostic or nothing in particular. But they're not all nonbelievers. Most of them do identify as nothing in particular. And most do believe in some kind of high power or spiritual force. That's where the majority of the movement is going. We don't see a lot of people leaving Christianity for a non-Christian religion.

MCCAMMON: Are you noticing any trends in terms of age or demographics? Who's leaving Christianity?

KRAMER: People who are raised Christian and later disaffiliate are a little more likely to be men than women. Younger people are more likely to have disaffiliation than older people. People who live in the western region of the U.S. are more likely to have disaffiliated than people who live in the South.

MCCAMMON: I want to play some tape from a woman we talked to. Her name is Eliza Campbell. and she left the Latter-day Saints Church, which is included in the survey among broader Christianity. Here's what Eliza Campbell had to say about why she left her church.

ELIZA CAMPBELL: And for me, especially when I started to come out as queer, it became impossible for me to reconcile this church that basically was admitting that it wanted me and other queer children dead. It just - I sort of realized that I had to, you know, choose myself ultimately and choose my well-being.

MCCAMMON: Is this common, people leaving Christianity because they disagree with specific teachings?

KRAMER: Yes. Pew has asked people in an open-ended way why they left their religion. And it is common for people to say that they just don't really believe the things that the religion teaches.

MCCAMMON: Your study also found that it's likely that by 2070, Americans who don't belong to any religion will be the majority. Can you tell us more about those findings and the different scenarios that might lead to that outcome?

KRAMER: Sure. If recent trends in switching hold, we project that Christians could make up between 35% and 46% of the U.S. population in 2070. Even if all religious switching had permanently ended in 2020, Christians would still be projected to decline by about 10 percentage points. Under these scenarios, the unaffiliated would grow to make up between 34% and 52% of the population in 2017.

MCCAMMON: Are other religions also losing members?

KRAMER: Other religions are projected to grow, mostly due to migration, under all of our scenarios.

MCCAMMON: Why is it important to measure this? And what do you see as the significance of this data?

KRAMER: The U.S. used to be such a heavily Christian country. You know, before about the mid-'90s, you could almost take it for granted that anyone you met on the street was Christian. I think a lot of people are wondering, where is Christianity headed, and where are the unaffiliated headed? And this study speaks to that when it comes to current trends, if recent trends continued, what would the future religious landscape look like?

MCCAMMON: Stephanie Kramer is a senior researcher specializing in religion at the Pew Center. Thanks so much for joining us.

KRAMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Kathryn Fox