May 27, 2015

Q&A: A look at what’s driving the changes seen in our Religious Landscape Study

David Campbell, University of Notre Dame
David Campbell, director, Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, University of Notre Dame

Based on more than 35,000 interviews, the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study presented a detailed portrait of an America where changes in religious affiliation have affected all regions of the country and many demographic groups.

The survey’s findings raise questions about why these changes are occurring.

Fact Tank sat down with David Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, to explore what the new findings mean. Campbell is the author of a number of books on religion, including (along with Robert Putnam) “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”

For you, what stands out as the most important new finding or findings in the Religious Landscape Study?

The rise of the religiously unaffiliated has rightly drawn a lot of attention, but it is worth pausing to consider what that rise tells us. For one thing, the secular surge demonstrates the fluid and dynamic nature of America’s religious ecosystem. Most of the people who say that their religion is “nothing in particular” or “none” were raised in a household that was at least nominally religious. In other words, the “nones” were once “somethings.” But, equally important, most of the “nones” are what we might call soft secularists. Most do not describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, which suggests that they are not totally disaffected from all aspects of religion, or from a belief in a God or higher power. In other words, this suggests that many of the “nones” are not actively opposed or hostile to religion, and that some of them might even be attracted to a new form of religion.

The pattern of growing “none”-ism also reminds us that the U.S. version of secularism is different than what we have observed in Western Europe. There, secularism has grown steadily through a process of generational replacement — each generation is more secular than the last. Here, secularism has grown rapidly, which means it cannot be explained by generational turnover. But, as I noted, the growth has largely been in soft secularism. Given the highly innovative and entrepreneurial nature of American religion, it is probable that we will see a response by religious leaders to bring those soft secularists back. Whether they will succeed is an open question, but the U.S. has gone through other periods where secularism seemed to be on the rise, only to see religion respond and stem the tide of secularism. For example, religious influence in U.S. society was waning in the 1960s, but was on the rebound by the late 1970s.

Why have mainline Protestants continued to decline dramatically, while evangelical Protestants have shown only small declines?

Evangelicalism can hold on to its adherents because it is as much a subculture as a religion. While evangelicals are typically defined by more than the church they attend on Sunday, they are also bound by mutually reinforcing expressions of culture — the schools their children attend, the movies they watch, the websites they visit, the music they listen to. The deeper someone’s immersion into such a subculture, the more their religion is an integral part of their identity, and thus hard to leave. Furthermore, evangelicalism — both as a religion and a subculture — is highly innovative, entrepreneurial, and adaptable. Evangelical congregations are often engaged in “creative destruction” by regularly introducing such things as new forms of church organization and types of worship.

In contrast, mainline Protestantism is much less likely to be all-encompassing, largely because over most of American history, the national culture had a mainline Protestant accent. Thus, there was no need for mainline Protestants to develop the sort of subculture found among evangelicals. Similarly, while there are some notable exceptions, mainline congregations are generally steeped in more tradition than their evangelical counterparts, making it more difficult to innovate.

The survey found that 13% of all American adults used to be Roman Catholic. In your view, what are the two or three biggest factors prompting so many people to leave the Catholic Church?

From what I have seen in the data, the continuing decline in Catholics is due largely to the same factors leading people to leave other faiths, rather than to specific Catholic issues. It is tempting to attribute the decline in Catholic numbers to the sex abuse crisis within the church, but that does not seem to be the primary explanation. I say this because we do not see a sharp drop in Catholic numbers corresponding with the revelations regarding sex abuse. Rather, it has been a steady trend. (There is evidence, however, that financial contributions to the Catholic Church have declined precipitously as a reaction to the sex abuse crisis. Catholic parishioners are voting with their dollars, if you will.)

One primary cause of the rise in “nones” — and thus the decline in Catholics — is a negative reaction to the mixture of religion and politics. And, just as mainline Protestants do not form the same sort of subculture as evangelicals, neither do Catholics. But Catholics once did. As the ethnic bonds of Catholicism have weakened, it has become easier for Catholics to become ex-Catholics.

The survey shows that Millennials, particularly the youngest Millennials, are the most likely to be unaffiliated. What factors are driving this development? 

The biggest reason the growth of the unaffiliated is concentrated among Millennials is dislike for the mixture of religion and politics. Many Americans find the mixture distasteful, particularly when religion is mixed with a political perspective they oppose. For those who have a weak attachment to religion in the first place, this distaste often leads to dropping a religious identity altogether. In other words, it is mainly moderates and liberals who are dropping a religious label, as they perceive that to be religious is to be politically conservative. And since young people are both the most likely to be politically liberal and have only known a political environment in which religion and conservatism go hand-in-hand, they are the most likely to identify as “nones.”

Among religious minorities, the report shows Muslims with considerable growth doubling (from 0.4% of U.S. adults in 2007 to 0.9% in 2014). Recent Pew Research Center demographic projections forecast Muslims to surpass Jews as the largest of the “small” American religious minorities. If this comes to pass, what, if any, impact is this development likely to have on the way Americans view Muslims?

It does appear likely that Muslims will eventually have a larger share of the population than Jews owing to immigration, a high birth rate and a high “retention” rate within Islam. The question of whether this changes how Americans view Muslims, however, depends on more than just the size of the Muslim population. Mormons are an illustrative example. There are as many Mormons in America as Jews, but they are viewed very differently. Jews are held in high regard; Mormons are not. One difference between the two groups is the degree to which they build bridges with people of other faiths. Jews have a high degree of inter-religious bridge building, while among Mormons it is far less common. As a result, fewer Americans develop close personal relationships with Mormons that enable them to overcome suspicions and misunderstandings. If Muslims grow as a share of the population but do not build interreligious bridges, they are more likely to be perceived negatively (like Mormons) than positively (like Jews).

Topics: Religion and Society, Research Methods, Religious Affiliation, Catholics and Catholicism, Evangelical Protestants and Evangelicalism, Mormons and Mormonism, Muslim Americans, Millennials, Jews and Judaism, Religiously Unaffiliated

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Ferdinand2 years ago

    The Latin etymology of the word religion, “religare” which means to bind or put one (one’s self) under an obligation perfectly explains the essence of the meaning of a religion. Every religious system has this as its basis – rules and regulations. Essentially, religion places its adherents under certain obligations towards a deity or lays down a set of rules by which a state of happiness/fulfilment may be obtained. In reality, no man has ever been able to demonstrate the ability to observe all of these rules. This selfsame fact condemns every system of religion and gives it the look of hypocrisy. Why try to uphold a failed system? There is a way out! A new and living path.

    Christianity was never meant to be a religion. Christianity in reality is not a religion. Christianity is not the continuation of Judaism. The most exalted presentation of Christianity is found in the writings of the greatest Christian evangelist and teacher Paul the Apostle. He is the only 1st Century apostolic witness who demonstrates the ability to explain with accuracy and clarity the meaning of scriptures and the mind of God. The inherent flaws in religion have given room for its adversaries; atheists, pantheists, etc., to attack the image of God. However, the world has not rejected God, it has rejected the wrong image that religion has presented of God. The portrait of God depicted by religion is not at all what He looks like in reality. This proper portrait is presented by the Apostle Paul and his successors since the beginning of the year of our Lord. The Christian setting is that of a family, no more, no less.

    In His writings, He (Paul) presents a God who is the literal, genetic, natural and Spiritual Father of the whole human race. He presents humanity as rescued from sin once and for all and reconciled to God for all eternity. He presents a divine family – not a religion. He presents God and man in a perfect relationship of unconditional love. He presents man in liberty, with the liberating truth being the Gospel (God’s spell on humanity) of Christ which reveals to every man that they have been saved and unconditionally accepted as God’s very own family – this is not a religion, it is a family relationship. There is a way that family operates and deals with each other which has nothing to do with religion. Religion is a poor substitute for the family and can indeed be the cause for strives and disputes within families. Religion cannot fabricate love. Religion can even command a man to be faithful to his wife, but does not possess the resources for husbands to love wives and vice versa. Rules and regulations cannot substitute liberty and life. They cannot produce happiness, harmony, peace. Love can, and God is love.

    So then, the reason why we are seeing declines in religion is because discerning men and women are awakening, within their conscience, to the realisation that there is no fulfilment in religion. They are beginning to look for something that transcends morality, ritual and fear. They are looking for something that works, something which is real, something they can experience and which is non-hypocritical – something they don’t need to cover up always. They are looking for love, acceptance and they will find it in Christ, the saviour of the whole world who will show them the Father’s unconditional Love and acceptance.

    Until the world, the religious leaders, and religious movements embrace this non-religious divinely originated plan for mankind, we are going to continue to see things decline in the religious world. In reality that which is not established on truth is always bound downward with the gravitational pull of deterioration and decline, but the ascension of Christ teaches us that all that which is of God ascends and increases. And the good news is that the decline of religion is good news to God. He never instituted it, He has no interest in its survival, He wants men to come to the knowledge of truth everywhere.

    There are only two systems on planet earth: one is a family, the other is bondage to rules and hence confusion & frustration: one is God’s system which is His family which will keep on increasing and the others which are essentially systems based on human interpretations of God (religion) – unaided by God, a man cannot properly interpret Holy writings. One of the tests of truth is what it produces in experience. Psychology reveals that the root of addictions is the reaction to failure to attempt to keep a set of rules or resolutions. Other tests of truth are reason and beauty. There is no beauty in the concept of a God who has laid down rules which no one can observe, neither does it make any sense. If no one can keep these rules through observance, may be the logical conclusion is that they were not meant to be kept in the first place. May be these rules are there to frustrate our fruitless attempts to please God by our own resources and turn to Him for salvation. The summary of the Christian life and estate as presented by the apostle Paul is that God did not give us rules to keep, by Jesus Christ, He gave us a life to keep us. In Christianity, the weight of the responsibility is always on God. He fulfils all His demands by Himself. He doesn’t need any man to help Him. If it were so, then He will not be God. Because in order for Him to be God, He must be omnipotent and self-sufficient, not needing anything from anyone. But because He is love, He is relational and is always moving towards man, for man and in man’s benefit. These things are better explained by a Cameroonian teacher; Dr Shawn Smith who oversees Gospel of Christ Ministries.

  2. JK Southard2 years ago

    At 80+ I see many around me who were taught traditional Christian values are now “nones” because they do not accept the church dogma. They do not want to be seen as believing that there is a God to be worshiped otherwise you will end up in Hell. Even I responded to a political pollster the other day that I was an atheist rather than admit that I am a member of a church choir….for fear that it be assumed that I think that Jesus was raised from the dead and is in Heaven awaiting my arrival…which is absurd. Religious dogma considered by many today to be fantasy similar to what is on the silver screen…I think is the reason many are abandoning religious institutions. AND the religious right is afraid that any afterlife carrot offered less than salvation/heaven may result in the loss of their funding and college football-type traditions. I do not think many Christians understand what Jesus was about.

  3. Jerry B. Lucky2 years ago

    I see a future where older generations leave their baggage behind and future youth will think of themselves as citizens of the world. New generations integrated around the world will marry and racial issues will moderate as world youth seek forms of government that disallows extremism and demands moderation. Religious institutions will moderate and constitutional republic forms of government will use checks and balances to force accountability at every level of government and society. See for how this will slowly evolve.

  4. Ellen2 years ago

    I don’t see mention here of the ‘spiritual’ groups’ — like UNITY CHURCH, A Course in Miracles, followers of such philosophies as ‘Abraham Hicks,’ etc. UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS and New Wave / Spiritualist churches. Fast growing groups — new thought movement.

  5. carol mukhopadhyay2 years ago

    What about gender differences? It’s amazing how we forget this major social dimension!

  6. Dave G.2 years ago

    As a young person I saw that more and more things are attributable to physical phenomena. My joke at the time was that every day god had less to do. At this point in my life I simply don’t feel a need for an imaginary friend. It has become clear to me that I am just a tiny result of a colossal cosmic accident.

  7. Observer2 years ago

    Interesting that he coins the term “soft secularism.” About 20 years ago I noticed that some of my friends were beginning to characterize themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” which I found rather confusing. I had been brought up to be “religious” but avoid “organized religion,” but they seemed to be defining “religion” solely in terms of established bodies.

    If “spiritual but not religious” had been offered as an option, would the percentage of simple “nones” have been smaller?

  8. Mildred2 years ago

    I left because God does not care how long my hair, is or what kind of clothes I wear, or if I go to church 3 times a week. They thought that their way is the only way. God does not want to control your every move, only the church. It’s an inside job ( God cares whats in my heart). You can’t be Love and Love unconditonaly if your judging. If churches taught unconditional Love they would see a big difference.

    1. JK Southard2 years ago

      Stand and be counted, Mildred. Go, be yourself, be good, “treat others as you would be treated”….that is all. Sounds as though your “neighbors” need a good example which you can be.

  9. Sandra2 years ago

    I have wondered if part of the reason might be that in the last few decades, more young people are not brought up in the church to begin with, so they don’t develop the habit. Most Moms work now, and just don’t have the time nor energy to take their kids to church every Sunday. When Moms didn’t work, church served an important social function as well as a religious one.

    1. Kyan R. Bohdi2 years ago

      The article clearly stated they are leaving because of religion insisting itself into politics. The combination is disgusting. American evangelicals have become the most cruel people in the country- ESPECIALLY the politicians. They use religion as a weapon to do harm to minorities and it disgusting. If God exists he doesn’t like the way his people are behaving right now that’s for sure.

  10. James Finley2 years ago

    Science and religion are inherently incompatible. Religion is faith based, accepting doctrine based upon what others believe and persuasively pass on to generation after generation.
    Science is based upon what can be objectively established through observation and rational thinking – the “scientific method”. Scientific inquiry involves accepting or rejecting existing constructs and theories or determining the the probability of the accuracy of a proposed hypothesis. It’s just as valuable to discover that we have been wrong about something as to reinforce a finding with further studies.

    People are increasingly valuing the products of science and questioning the sanity of thanking a god for sparing one child when ten others perish.


    1. JK Southard2 years ago

      I am a church goer and I have faith that if I treat others fairly and with respect as I would be treated that I may find some contentment in this life. I continue to work on it in my 81st year. And, I think it is possible to measure that faith, in that, “faith without works is dead”….so there I have it. Checking my good v bad works daily. There should be a “faith” app…there is for everything else.

  11. Commentator2 years ago

    It may have something to do with the fact that mainline churches have generally emphasized worship and doctrine. They’ve largely become social clubs focused upon the amorphous idea of “doing good.” However, there are more engaging social clubs and organizations doing more good.

  12. Bob Gaston2 years ago

    Could be that the “mainstream” religions have become so watered down that people no longer believe they stand for anything but some sort of feel good liberalism.

    My wife and I have left the traditional church we were raised in, and have joined a far more conservative congregation. I suppose the “gay pride” and Palistanian Authority flags they tried to have behind the alter at my father’s funeral may have had something to do with our move.

  13. Carol Stewart2 years ago

    An issue not mentioned in the summary that explains changing religious affiliation, in my case, is that I find it to be historically interesting but irrelevant in my life. Rather than spread the message of love religious communities gather and look askance at the rest of us.
    In the world wars based on religious hegemony are proliferating as we watch.

  14. Colleen Noel Harper2 years ago

    I was a devout Christian through the LBJ, Nixon/Ford, Carter and Reagan years, but as I watched the Republican party bow in servitude to evangelical Christianity, I watched Christianity become more isolationist and insular. Churches I had been a member of began to dictate political purity for the Republican party. Finally, in the last few years of my faith, I found myself in a church that was very cultic. Leadership demanded and expected full authority over members’ lives, even in such personal decisions as higher education and marriage. When I was told that the church would decide IF I and my partner would be ALLOWED to marry, I realized I was in a cult as wicked as James Jones’ cult. I fled.

    In the following years, I questioned what I believed and why and only slowly became an atheist. Leaving Christianity, leaving faith, was one of the hardest things I’ve done. If evangelical Christianity hadn’t become so political and so right wing conservative, I really wonder if I would have ever embarked on this new path. I still hold the values of Jesus as the highest goals – to feed the hungry, visit the sick, care for the orphan – and yet evangelical Christianity seems to have rejected all those values in dedication to the Republican party.

    1. JK Southard2 years ago

      It is possible to “treat others as I would be treated” and hold to the higher standard of care…sounds as though some of your neighbors need your example. Just don’t fight the politics but don’t be afraid to show your own. You have compatriots there who may be closeted and need your strength. Someday you may get a medal for it, if not literally.

  15. Bernard R. Jacobs2 years ago

    My reason for leaving organized religion was the fact that organized religions, in the
    USA seemed to be more concerned with buildings and other “things”‘then trying to
    Help those that need help…both moral and physicial.
    I was a Roman Catholic until I was in my 60’s… in S.W. Florida…I tried
    To raise funds to assist the migrant workers in the area.
    I was attempting to hold a social event and sent a letter to every organized religion
    In the area…Asking them to be responsible for 4 tickets @ $50.00 each.
    The funds were to be used to help set up a organization in Immocklee to provide
    Medicial and other type aid to migrant workers.
    I received only 3 yeses out of about 35-40 churches….the main reason given was
    They were not helping was their building funds….I realized that either I was wrong
    Or they were…so I left organized religion…but that does not mean I left religion.

    1. JK Southard2 years ago

      Don’t give up. Those “yeses” need your leadership and the “no’s” need your example. Jesus did not give up…. Hang in there.

  16. mary davis2 years ago

    Is it possible that some of the “nones” self-identify out of shame that they have not “really gone to church much” or feel they “aren’t a very good (Christian/Catholic/whatever)?
    Or perhaps they’re afraid you’ll check up on them through a church if they name it? 🙂

    1. keith klimek2 years ago

      shame has not been much a motivating factor in american life, especially since the mid-20th century

  17. Steve borkowski2 years ago

    With more interest in Science and students taking science classes,there is less
    Certitude of religious Beliefs that are taught as facts. Watching beheadings by
    ISS faithfulness make sensible people question religious beliefs It is a simple
    Leap of thought to compare scientific explanations with non provable faith.
    The Laws of Nature don,t dictate death to non believers while manmade beliefs can and do in some cases.

  18. freethinker2 years ago

    wow it has nothing to do with the fact that the internet is exposing religion to be nothing more than man made mythology?

    1. Real thinker2 years ago

      The Internet is not the harbinger of truth, in fact it has significant non truth in it. You assertion is not valid. Is a free thinker free to believe in God?