While Pew concedes that a religious revival could change this trajectory, the Christian population could significantly decline under current trends.
A recent study from Pew Research Center examining the future religious demographics in the United States has projected a significant decline in the nation’s Christian population. The study created hypothetical models based on current trends – such as migration, births, deaths, and religious “switching.” Pew found that Christians are expected to lose their majority status by 2070 in all scenarios.
In a press release, Pew explained that the study, Modeling the Future of Religion in America, sought to answer several questions on the future of religious identity in the United States, including:
“What if Christians keep leaving religion at the same rate observed in recent years? What if the pace of religious ‘switching’ continues to accelerate? What if switching were to stop, but other demographic trends – such as migration, births and deaths – were to continue at current rates?”
Pew first established a baseline view of current U.S. religious demographics. As of 2020, it is estimated that around 64% of Americans, both adults and children, are Chirstian, while the portion of those identifying as religious “nones” stands around 30%. The remaining 6% is made up of adherents of other faiths, including Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists.
Much of Pew’s study revolves around the growing trend of “switching,” a term that refers to changing one’s religious affiliation. “Switching” refers to any change between the religion in which a person was raised and their religious identity as an adult, be it by conversion or faith abandonment. Pew uses the term for anyone who changes their religious identity, whether they are entering or leaving Christianity.
Furthermore, Pew noted that the study did not seek to explain the rise of religious “nones,” but rather to analyze recent trends to predict how the U.S. religious landscape might change should they continue.
Pew constructed four scenarios based on hypothetical rates of “switching.” The first proceeded under the assumption that “switching” rates will continue as they have in recent years. This “Steady Switching” model shows 31% of Christians raised in the Christian faith leaving Christianity by the age of 30, per generation. In the same model 21% of those raised with no faith would convert to Christianity.
Following this model, Christianity would lose its majority status by 2060 and fall to 46% of the population by 2070. In this scenario Christianity maintains a plurality of the population, albeit just barely, as religious “nones” would hold 41% of the population.
It is a grim projection – especially considering it is based on the current trends – but it was possibly the most promising outcome for Christians of any Pew model. The only model that showed a higher portion of Christians by 2070 was the fourth, which assumed that all “switching” would cease. Pew notes, however, that this model is the least realistic of the study.
Models 2 and 3
In the second and third scenarios, Pew explored recent patterns of American young adults leaving Christianity, the difference being that the second model limited Christian retention from falling below 50% per generation, while the third proceeded without limits.
In both of these scenarios Christians would reach minority status by 2050 at the latest. The projections were not all that different either, with the limited model placing the population of Christians around 39%, and the unlimited model sliding down to 35%. In both of these scenarios roughly half the country would identify as religious “nones” by 2070.
While Pew was quick to note that their fourth model – in which all “switching” would immediately cease – is unrealistic, even this model showed a decline in Christian identity. Pew found that even if all “switching” stopped, Christianity would shrink by as much as 10%.
This was due to several factors, including the older, more religiously active generations dying off. Meanwhile the bulk of those who are unaffiliated would reach childbearing age and would make up a larger share of the population.
Pew’s findings suggest that Christianity in the U.S. will shrink significantly over the next 50 years. While researchers did note that they do not expect the future to pan out exactly in line with their projections, they felt that the second scenario – the limited rise of disaffiliation – is the most realistic, based on current trends.
The report also conceded that none of the scenarios demonstrate what would happen if “switching” into Christianity increased. They reiterate that their projections “describe the potential consequences of dynamics currently shaping the religious landscape.” Pew suggested that a religious revival, which could be triggered by a variety of social and economic circumstances, would have the potential to change this trajectory.