Chances are you don’t care about this. In fact, there is almost a one in four chance you don’t care about this. That is the percentage of “NONES” in the country. “Nones” is a pollsters category that lumps atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers together.
As has been widely reported, PRRI recently published the results of surveys it took between 2013-2019, the largest such survey of religion in America since the mid-twentieth century. It holds quite a lot of surprises.
For example, the percentage of Nones actually shrunk a little from their peak of 25.3% in 2018. Fewer Nones means more religiously affiliated, and that is a startling change. Reversing decades-long trends, Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics increased while White Evangelicals decreased. Mainline Protestants (Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.) increased from 13% in 2016 to 16.4% while Roman Catholics crept up to 11.7% from 10.9%. Meanwhile, White Evangelical Protestants took a plunge from their height in 2006 of 23% down to a current 14.5%. One theory posits that the increase in Mainline Protestant churches comes from younger members leaving White Evangelical churches, which would make sense because the latter now has the oldest average age of all these religious groups at fifty-six. The average age of Roman Catholics is fifty-four and that of both White Mainliners and Black Protestants is fifty years.
The youngest average age for religious groups belongs to Muslims (33), Buddhists (36), Mormons (47), and Jews (48). Oh, but Nones come in at a tender average age of 38. It is also interesting to note that Nones (23%) form a larger piece of the pie than either White Evangelicals (14.5%), Mainline Protestants (16.4%), or Roman Catholics (11.7%).
But overall, White Christians have shrunk as a total part of the population from 54% in 2006 down to a current 44%, while Christians of color have grown from 23% to 26% of the population. Polls tend to track along racial divides for reasons I do not understand, except that Black Protestants are more likely to be Evangelical and yet demographically quite different from White Evangelicals. For example, while Christians of color are the largest religious group in the Democratic party coalition (at 32%), they make up only 14% of the Republican party.
The take-away here is that Christians of color, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are young and growing while White Evangelicals are aging and shrinking along with the youthful Nones. This is counter to the popular narrative. Since I am a Mainline Protestant it is an appealing surprise but one that confuses me greatly. Still, when data contradicts a popular assumption it is time to question the assumption or discount the data. If it is good data — in this case, a reputable research group with a sample of nearly half a million — it is the assumption that needs pruning.
Christians of color, non-Christian religions, and even Mainline Protestants are in ascendancy, with Nones the largest single slice of the pie. All of this has political implications as well, since those groups also vote Democrat in significantly larger percentages than the religious groups that are shrinking. Perhaps this helps to explain the feverish anxiety at the right wings of the population, both nationally and locally. The growing youthful diversity may feel like a threat rather than the gift and blessing it is.